A crisis of confidence

“We are confident our process is robust and that the decision was absolutely the right one for tax payers and passengers. We expect to sign the contract soon.”

This strident defence of the Department for Transport’s decision-making process was attributed to an unidentified “spokesman” by an article on the BBC News website at the end of August 2012. The “robust” process to which this spokesman was referring is the analysis of bids for the new franchise on the West Coast Main Line (WCML).

The same article also quotes the then Secretary of State for Transport as promising that “[the Government] will defend the robustness of the process”.

Just over a month later a different story has emerged. A Department for Transport (DfT) press release informs us that:

“Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has today announced that the competition to run trains on the West Coast Main Line has been cancelled following the discovery of significant technical flaws in the way the franchise process was conducted.”

It goes on to say that:

“The flaws uncovered relate to the way the procurement was conducted by department officials. An announcement will be made later today concerning the suspension of staff while an investigation takes place.”

Those of you who have read my blog A work of fiction (posted 8 Sep 2012) may join me in wondering if there are any plans to suspend Christopher Tietjens.

The new Transport Secretary is beside himself:

“I have had to cancel the competition for the running of the West Coast franchise because of deeply regrettable and completely unacceptable mistakes made by my department in the way it managed the process.”

And promises:

“I have ordered two independent reviews to look urgently and thoroughly into the matter so that we know what exactly happened and how we can make sure our rail franchise programme is fit for purpose.”

DfT Permanent Secretary, Philip Rutnam, is also suitably contrite:

“The errors exposed by our investigation are deeply concerning. They show a lack of good process and a lack of proper quality assurance.”

I’m afraid that this all comes as no surprise to those of us who have queried the methodology that the DfT has employed in the calculation of the business case for HS2 and which I have reported on in a recent series of blogs beginning with Going down the pan (posted 11 Aug 2012).

So, in the light of the revelations about the WCML franchise bids and the HS2 skeletons in the DfT cupboard, why should we have any faith in the DfT to make a fair assessment of the HS2 business case?

Well, Simon Burns MP, the new Transport Minister, is confident that all is well. He was asked by Kirsty Wark on the BBC 2 TV Newsnight programme that went out on the same day as the DfT issued its press release “In respect of the hsr costs, how do you know the right figures have been put in?”. The Minister replied:

“Because I am confident that is the case, because it has been looked at time and time again, not simply by the Department for Transport but also by HS2 itself.”

This latest bluster invites comparison with the one that I quoted at the top of this blog. It looks pretty similar to me and, on the basis on what we know now, should probably be treated with a great deal of scepticism.

This leads to an inevitable question: “When are we going to get our independent review of the HS2 proposals Mr McLoughlin?

PS: If you think that I am being a bit hard on the DfT with my vote of “no confidence” in its handling of HS2, take a look at the article by the Daily Telegraph columnist Sue Cameron, in which she reports on rumours circulating around Whitehall that make much the same connection as I have in my blog, but somewhat more explicitly:

“Unconfirmed reports suggest that ministers were told months ago that the method being used to forecast inflation in the West Coast bids was the same as that being used for HS2.”

“There are also claims, again unconfirmed it must be stressed, that ministers were warned that if the method for calculating inflation was changed for both projects then HS2 would no longer be viable.”

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