'Firm exploited franchise flaw'
A TRAIN firm which runs services between Exeter and London has been accused of 'gaming' the system without facing a penalty.
Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle pointed to FirstGroup's decision to end its contract for the Great Western line three years early, and so avoid making an estimated £800 million in payments to the Government.
She highlighted it as a further flaw in the franchise process which is already facing calls for reform after the West Coast rail line fiasco.
The costly debacle means the new Great Western deal, due to start next year, has been put on hold pending the outcome of an independent inquiry into contracting arrangements.
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First Great Western has insisted it is meeting the commitment made with the Government.
Ms Eagle is pressing for the government review to consider changing the franchise system, arguing the current one had failed to deliver the promised benefits.
And she did not rule out this including bringing back the running of the railways into public hands.
One of her criticisms was the so-called 'gaming' of the system by operators, without being penalised.
Ms Eagle said: "Remember, the reason why Great Western is coming up now is that First could have run it for another three years had it chosen to do so.
"But they handed it back, in order to avoid making £800 million of payments to the Government and there doesn't seem to have been any kind of penalty, or debt, for them for doing that."