Branson's last-ditch plea on rail deal goes unheeded
LONDON Aug 27 (Reuters) - Britain's Department for Transport (DfT) said there would be no delay in handing the west coast rail franchise to FirstGroup, despite losing bidder Richard Branson calling on the prime minister to back a last-minute review of the process.
Branson's Virgin Trains, a joint venture between Virgin Group and Stagecoach, was outbid for the franchise to run services between London and north west England and Scotland earlier this month.
Rail and bus operator FirstGroup bid around 6 billion pounds ($9.5 billion) to wrest the contract from Virgin, which has run the service for 15 years, for the next 13 years.
Billionaire Branson said FirstGroup's numbers do not stack up and has called for an independent audit of the DfT's decision before the contract is signed on Tuesday.
"We want a brief stay so that the debate can take place and the facts can be examined," he said on BBC radio on Monday.
"I think the person who can really intervene to try to get some sense into the Department for Transport is the prime minister."
Branson has offered to run the service on a non-for-profit basis for a few months beyond December's handover date to allow time for a review.
A DfT spokesman said the government had noted Branson's offer, made in the press on Sunday.
"However, the winning bidder was decided by a fair and established process and no reason has been advanced to convince DfT not to sign the agreement," he said on Monday.
Branson is backed by more than 100,000 people, who have signed an e-petition urging the government to reconsider the franchise award.
Labour party lawmaker and chair of the transport committee Louise Ellman wrote to Transport Secretary Justine Greening on Friday to ask her to postpone the signing of the deal to allow the committee to investigate.
"I believe this would help to provide greater transparency and address the concerns that have been raised," she said.
FirstGroup chief executive Tim O'Toole, however, said he was pleased the DfT had reiterated the agreement would go ahead.
"We are one of the country's most experienced rail operators and have a good track record," he said in a statement on Monday.
"We won the bid fair and square and we are pleased that the Department for Transport sees no reason to revisit the process.
"Our bid is deliverable and it provides the best deal for taxpayers, for passengers and for staff on the West Coast Mainline."
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