ACCIDENT-prone minister Chris Grayling’s transport department was sued for the third time in a month today as a trio of train giants launched legal action over his decision to bar them from the lucrative West Coast rail franchise.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains, along with partners Stagecoach and France’s SNCF, filed a claim with the High Court, claiming the department crippled any chance of a competitive tendering process on that franchise.
It comes just weeks after P&O sued the department over Grayling’s ferry fiasco and Arriva and Stagecoach launched actions over the East Midlands franchise.
The train operators are heading to court because Grayling had insisted new rail bidders take on billions of pounds in potential pension liabilities, disqualifying those who did not comply.
Stagecoach has estimated its hit from the loss of the franchises at more than £1 billion.
The claim has been brought by the West Coast Trains Partnership, which is 50% owned by Stagecoach while SNCF has 30% and Virgin 20%.
Grayling, right, has been attacked by fellow politicians for various rail failures, including the timetable chaos last May that led to delays and cancellations around the country.
He was accused of “extraordinary complacency” by Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, who chairs the Transport Committee.
Stagecoach and its partners are also demanding a judicial review of the decision to involve pensions in the tendering process.
Virgin Group senior partner Patrick McCall said today: “It is extremely frustrating that the reason our bid was disqualified has nothing to do with looking after passengers or running a good train service.”
According to the Pensions Regulator, the rail industry has a pension shortfall of up to £6 billion.
Stagecoach has argued it was being asked to take on risks it “cannot control and manage”.
Stagecoach chief executive Martin Griffiths said: “We believe the rail system should be about appointing the best operator for customers, not about passing unquantifiable, unmanageable and inappropriate risk to train companies.”
The DfT said it cannot comment about ongoing legal actions.