City MP Stewart clashes with shadow transport secretary over Virgin decision

Andrew Pakes with Maria Eagle
Andrew Pakes with Maria Eagle

A WAR of words has broken out between the shadow transport secretary and a city MP over the decision to extend Virgin Trains’ West Coast Mainline rail contract by 23 months.

Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle, was in Milton Keynes earlier today to visit the new Network Rail headquarters.

The Labour politician, who was accompanied by prospective parliamentary candidate for Milton Keynes South Andrew Pakes, said the move was good news for passengers.

But she criticised the Government’s decision to offer 15 year franchises.

Meanwhile, MK South MP Iain Stewart accused Labour of ‘trying to have it both ways’ by objecting to franchising while welcoming the benefits it brings.

The announcement to extend Virgin’s contract was made this morning and comes after months of uncertainty. FirstGroup was originally awarded the franchise to run the West Coast Mainline before seeing the deal collapse at the last minute due to flaws in the selection process.

Speaking outside Central Milton Keynes railway station, Mrs Eagle said: “It is good news for passengers and staff as they now know what they will be doing. However, the decision to offer 15 year franchises is a poor one as it means people will have to guess what GDP (Gross Domestic Product) will be in 15 years.

“Also the Transport Secretary failed to answer my questions on how much this process has cost. It’s still not clear and there are questions still to be answered.”

And Mr Pakes added: “This announcement with Virgin ends month of uncertainty for passengers but the Government still has big questions to answer about this incompetent mess. The shambles on the franchise has cost taxpayers at least £40 million.

“The Government appear to have dropped plans to cut fares on the route and we don’t know what will happen when the franchise is re-tendered in 23 months’ time. The Government needs to rethink its approach to cut-price franchising and put passengers first.”

But Mr Stewart, who is on the Government’s transport select committee, said: “Labour cannot have it both ways.

“They cannot object to the franchising model and then demand to see the benefits that franchising delivers.

“Passengers on the West Coast line will be seeing additional carriages and services on the line right away.

“During the Parliamentary statement, I asked the Secretary of State to make sure that, when the long-term franchise is let, the substantial improvements promised for the line over the next decade or so will be delivered.”