FirstGroup rail franchise to come under scrutiny

Jason Ford

News editor

The saga of the West Coast Mainline rail franchise continues today with a Commons Transport Select Committee holding a hearing into FirstGroup’s award of the 13-year contract.

The session will be attended by FirstGroup chief executive Tim O’Toole and Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, who has launched a legal challenge to the government’s decision, claiming the contract was ‘over-valued’ and warning FirstGroup may default on its payments if passenger revenue is lower than expected.

A similar scenario caused the collapse of National Express East Coast in 2009, and unions fear there will be job cuts and fare rises under the new deal.

Last week the RMT accused the government of not being transparent with details of the winning bid, stating: ‘only edited highlights of the First Group “winning” bid have been published and those are clearly written by spin doctors and advertising gurus as a series of vague and unsustainable promises not worth the paper that they are printed on.’

FirstGroup says its plans for the franchise include faster journeys, new trains, more seats and more direct services from London.

Virgin’s plan offers an £800m investment programme, including outlay for improved station facilities, delivery of new trains, extra routes, and improved on-board services.

Virgin Rail Group claims that over 167,000 people, including customers who use the West Coast route, have signed an e-petition protesting at the franchise decision.

Tomorrow marks the start of the Berlin Air show, which promises some fascinating glimpses into the future of aviation including a lightning simulator, a rotor flap demonstrator built to reduce noise and vibrations, and the hybrid propulsion system concept for the TANAN UAS, all of which will be demonstrated by EADs Innovation Works.

A number of helicopters will be making their debuts in Berlin, including the new version of Sikorsky’s Black Hawk S-70i; plus Eurocopter’s EC145-T2, UH-72 Lakota and X-3 hybrid demonstrator designed to achieve a 50 per cent speed gain over standard helicopters at an extra price of no more than 25 per cent.

In a related development, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has designed an alternative to the traditional leading-edge slat.

Developed with partners Airbus, EADS Innovation Works and Cassidian Air Systems, the so-called smart droop nose (a morphing leading edge) is expected to replace slats to create a high-lift system, with DLR adding that its construction would reduce drag and noise during landing.

Finally, this Friday marks the nomination deadline for The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

The £1m international and biennial prize was launched in November 2011 and will be awarded to an individual or team whose proven engineering innovation has led to significant benefits to humanity.

Speaking to The Engineer in August, Paul Westbury, QE Prize judge and Buro Happold’s chief executive officer and head of sport & entertainment sector said: ‘It’s important that engineers start talking about what they do, because one of the classic problems with our profession is that the impact we have is immense, but we too often fail to celebrate it. I guess we’re modest folk; we spend so much time solving problems that we don’t spend enough time celebrating the answers.’

Click here for more information on the QE Prize and to make a nomination.