£100m upgrade to East Coast rail line but still no guarantee of a seat

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The Independent Online

Passengers will have to continue standing on Britain's busiest Inter-City rail service despite a £100m package of improvements for the East Coast Main Line.

The improvements, which were announced yesterday, will include two extra trains, refurbishment of existing rolling stock, an additional 11 services a day between Leeds and London – making it into a half-hourly service – and £10m of investment in stations and passenger information.

But Christopher Garnett, chief executive of Great North Eastern Railways, admitted that even with the extra investment there would continue to be overcrowding. "I cannot give any guarantee that people will not have to stand," he added.

The extra trains and the lengthening of GNER's existing but ageing fleet of high speed trains will enable it to increase capacity on the East Coast Main Line by around 6 per cent. But GNER executives warned this would only help to relieve overcrowding for 12 months because passenger numbers were growing at a rate of 6 to 7 per cent a year anyway.

The £100m investment announced by the Strategic Rail Authority is designed to achieve a number of "quick wins" for passengers and is tied to a two-year extension to GNER's existing franchise, taking it through to April 2005.

Mr Garnett said a decision on the upgrading of the East Coast Main Line was urgently needed so the SRA could get on with letting a new 15-year franchise. This, in turn, would enable the winner of the contest to invest in a fleet of 25 new trains.

Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA, said the East Coast Main Line announcement gave the lie to the idea that the private sector would no longer invest in the railways, pointing out that no public subsidy was involved in the deal.

In addition to the service improvements, GNER has agreed to new performance targets requiring at least 81 per cent of trains to run on time from April, 2003. There will also be a new compensation scheme entitling passengers to a 50 per cent refund if their train is 45 to 90 minutes late and a complete refund if the delay is more than an hour and a half.

The SRA rejected bids last July from both GNER and Virgin Trains for a new 20-year franchise on the East Coast line and instead decided to give the incumbent operator a two-year extension. Mr Bowker said he intended to invite fresh bids for a new 15-year franchise but did not say when.

The upgrade of the East Coast Main Line has been thrown into a certain amount of confusion by the Government's decision to examine plans for an entirely new high-speed line from London to Scotland. Privately, some GNER executives believe one option is for a further short-term extension to the East Coast franchise when the latest one runs out in 2005.

The additional trains will be refurbished Eurostars, of which there are already two in the GNER fleet. One will be used to replace the train lost in the Great Heck accident.