Southeastern in South London: unit No 375619 (centre) makes its way from Victoria to Orpington in the shadow of the Battersea power station redevelopment site on 10 April 2019. At left is a London Overground service and in the rearground a Networker. Ian Francis

RAIL MINISTER Andrew Jones has said he is unable to give a date for the award of the new South Eastern franchise. The franchise had been due to change last December, but incumbent operator Govia has since received two subsequent direct award extensions, first to 1 April and then 22 June, with the Department for Transport now seeking an extension to 10 November, with a further optional extension to April 2020.

Speaking in the House of Commons on 23 April, Mr Jones said: ‘This is a huge and complex piece of public procurement, and it is right to take the time to make sure we get it right and to finalise this competition. The area is one of the most complex on our network; it has a mix of high-speed and commuter services, with a highly intensive use of infrastructure. I cannot tell him (Sevenoaks MP Sir Michael Fallon) the date on which we will be able to make the announcement.’

In a letter to House of Commons Transport Committee chair Lilian Greenwood, dated 7 May, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed that issues regarding pensions were ‘a contributing factor’ to the delay in awarding the franchise. Setting out the sequence of events, Mr Grayling said DfT issued a letter to bidders on 2 March 2018 ‘clarifying certain expectations of tPR (the Pensions Regulator) for addressing funding levels of RPS (Railway Pension Scheme) sections’. A re-bid for the South Eastern competition then occurred in September 2018, when bidders were ‘invited to resubmit the pension-specific elements of their bid in the light of the additional information’. He added that ‘in terms of non-compliance with pensions risk allocation requirements Stagecoach’s is the only bid which has been disqualified’.

In respect of the West Coast Partnership competition, Mr Grayling said a set of focused rebid instructions was released in October 2018, subsequent to which two bidders raised queries on aspects of the approach taken.

However, he again said the only bidder disqualified in terms of non-compliance with pensions risk allocation requirements is ‘the consortium of which Stagecoach is a member’. The letter notes the expected franchise award date of June 2019 falls within the planned window set out by DfT at the time the Invitation to Tender was issued. The current direct award franchise with Virgin Trains runs until November this year, but with an option to extend until 31 March 2020.