Few issues have demonstrated the Government’s stubborn resistance to logic, common sense and overwhelming evidence quite like the shambolic mishandling of the Thameslink contract.
It is a year-and-a-half since then-Transport Secretary Philip Hammond controversially picked German manufacturer Siemens ahead of Derby trainmaker Bombardier for the lucrative deal, instantly sending thousands of midlands workers into unemployment. Two ministers later and the deal still hasn’t been signed, but current incumbent Patrick McLoughlin, just like Justine Greening before him, seems equally as blind to the abundance of evidence that the department got it wrong.
In Derby, we have felt an incredibly traumatic rollercoaster of emotions. At first, it was anger at the Government’s apparent belligerence and ignorance in taking no account whatsoever of the devastating economic impact of sending the £1.4bn contract overseas. That was swiftly followed by disappointment and bemusement when it became clear ministers had no intention of budging, despite a 50,000-plus name petition and 10,000 people taking to the streets in protest. The months that have followed have featured repeated bouts of hope followed by frustration as each new piece of evidence that is unearthed is either dismissed or ignored by the Government.
And now we’re back to anger again – as it becomes increasingly obvious that the Government’s resolve to see this one through is nothing to do with sense or necessity but everything to do with a bloody-minded determination not to buckle, however compelling the case that they ought to.
It is like a scene from Fawlty Towers in which Basil keeps digging, digging and digging some more until he has no choice but to meet an inevitable calamitous conclusion. The big difference is that Mr McLoughlin’s failings, like those of Ms Greening and Mr Hammond before him, simply aren’t funny.
The latest evidence to come to light, and to be roundly ignored by the Government, is the somewhat fundamental concern that the Thameslink trains simply aren’t going to be compatible for wide swathes of British tracks – and that Siemens has no existing ability to rectify that. By contrast, Bombardier not only boasts a compatible model already, but had it been made preferred bidder instead of Siemens, it would have been able to begin production immediately. And ability to act immediately is another major concern with Siemens right now.
It might have escaped Mr McLoughlin’s attention, but it hasn’t escaped the notice of the German media that Siemens has suffered significant delays in providing for another contract it won; this time for Deutsche Bahn, the national rail company in Germany. The mixed-product manufacturer has blamed system failures but is reported in some of Germany’s largest selling national newspapers to simply be over-stretched. This is all on top of the many concerns that have been raised over the original procurement process, with even the Transport Select Committee hearing strong evidence that Siemens was handed an unfair advantage over Bombardier.
And, let’s be honest, the farce over the suspended West Coast Mainline contract hardly fills you with confidence that the Department for Transport is quite as au fait with these dealings as one might expect. Then there is the fact that the Government has significantly moved the goalposts since it originally contracted for Thameslink. It is now anticipated that a “super-franchise” will be created, also involving some of the Southern and South Eastern services.
This is significant because even if the Government doesn’t want to admit it got it wrong the first time round, herein lay a wonderful opportunity for ministers to revisit the original decision without necessarily losing face. It was an opportunity they missed and, sadly, I am increasingly led to believe it is because they simply don’t have the bottle.
I hope I am wrong. Financial close has not yet been reached on the Thameslink deal, although it is perilously close. In response to a debate this issue on Thursday, Transport Minister, Simon Burns, said they would complete the deal early in the New Year.
But there is still time for Mr McLoughlin to do the decent thing and ask his department to revisit the original decision in light of the wealth of evidence that has become apparent since then. I would hope that even if his ministerial duty to make the right choice for the country doesn’t persuade him to do that, then his loyalty to the Derbyshire public who elected him might.
If that doesn’t happen, then Mr McLoughlin and his Government will just have to cross their fingers that the vast majority of us who can see what they can’t have got it wrong. For if we haven’t, I can assure them that all 50,000 of us who signed that petition will be watching the delivery of that contract like a hawk and will be quick to remind them of the dozens of warnings they failed to heed before awarding it.
Chris Williamson is the Labour MP for Derby North