Rail powers may not be devolved until 2018
A FORMAL call for tenders to run the Wales and Borders rail franchise will be made today – although the Welsh and UK governments are still at loggerheads over future funding.
It’s likely that the power to award the franchise to one of four expected bidders will not now be transferred from Westminster to Cardiff until 2018.
As a consequence, the franchise may officially be awarded by the Secretary of State for Transport rather than by the Welsh Government – although the Welsh Government will actually make the decision as an agent of Westminster.
The new franchise, replacing the one currently run by Arriva Trains Wales, is due to start in October next year.
But there has been a huge row between the two governments over funding.
The UK Government has been accused of attempting to “renege” on a deal and “strip out” £1bn of investment from Welsh railways over 15 years.
But Transport Secretary Chris Grayling insists there was never an agreement to provide the cash, and sees no basis for the claim.
Simon Jones, director of transport and ICT infrastructure at the Welsh Government, told AMs: “If you look at the Department for Transport website it says that those powers will be transferred at the end of this year.
“Our discussions with officials are suggesting that might run into next year.
“We’re going out to tender on the back of an agency agreement that ministers have signed between here and Westminster.
“So this tender is on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport. Depending on how rapidly they turn the powers around we may end up with an agency agreement to award the contract as well.”
Confirming that tenders would be sought today, Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, said: “We still feel that an agreement that was reached in 2014 has not been honoured. I feel that it was very clear, the agreement that was reached by my predecessor.
“It’s always been my belief that the block grant would be unaffected as the agreement states but it would appear that the view has changed at a UK level.
“He [Mr Grayling] does not agree that the agreement in 2014 includes the rebate of the track access charge.”
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We want better rail services for people in Wales and we are committed to giving the Welsh Government greater control over trains, and will be finalising arrangements for devolution over the next few months.”
Labour AM Jeremy Miles said powers were meant to have been devolved in January 2017. He said committee evidence from the Department for Transport “suggested to me that the UK Government had all but washed its hands of responsibility for the franchise, while at the same time dragging its heels on devolving the powers to the Welsh Government”.
Plaid Cymru Infrastructure Spokesperson Dai Lloyd AM, said: “Incompetence of the highest order is the only way we can describe this latest development. Two missed deadlines have already cost the Welsh taxpayer £3.5m and now we find out that the franchise itself will not be in time for the Welsh Government to procure it.
“Plaid Cymru has spent the last year warning the Welsh Government of this impending disaster. I even tabled an urgent question in the Senedd to which the Cabinet Secretary responded that everything was on track.
“The fact senior officials are referring to the Department for Transport website for the latest updates shows how poor communications are between the two governments.
“A £1bn black hole still remains due to the Welsh Government failing to agree the terms of the franchise before it started the procurement process. They have left the franchise in limbo and put the services we rely on at risk.”
But Ukip AM David Rowlands criticised UK Government “intransigence” for making “procurement and the franchise award infinitely more difficult for the Welsh Government to realise its ambitions for rail services of Wales and the delivery of the metro”.
Hatti Woakes, secretary of the North Pembrokeshire Transport Forum, which successfully campaigned for improved rail services to Fishguard, said she was confident the new franchise would be better for passengers.
She said: “There is a huge contrast between how the last franchise was handled, and how this one has been.
“Last time, there was very little public engagement, and as we know the Welsh Government was shortchanged and had to use its own money to make necessary improvements.
“This time, we have been involved from the start in feeding in ideas about the improvements we would like.”