East Coast to be back in private hands by 2011

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The Independent Online

The East Coast Main Line at the centre of the National Express debacle will return to private sector ownership in November 2011, the Government confirmed yesterday.

National Express passed the franchise back to the Government in July after falling passenger revenues proved unsustainable for the debt-laden operator and a newly created public sector organisation – East Coast – took over the running of the route at the beginning of this month.

The timetable for the re-tendering of the franchise back to the private sector was laid out in a formal statement from Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, yesterday. Consultation on the details of the new contract will begin next spring, with a view to issuing the formal invitation to tender in the autumn and signing a deal by summer 2011. Both Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Trains and Stagecoach expressed an early interest in taking over the East Coast Mainline after National Express's departure in the summer.

Despite rumblings in the immediate aftermath of the crisis in July, National Express has not been forced to give up its other two rail franchises. But the c2c operation, which runs commuter services from London's Fenchurch Street station will expire in May 2011. Re-tendering will follow a similar timetable as for East Coast. Lord Adonis made it clear when National Express walked away from East Coast Main Line that it should not expect any future business in the UK rail sector.

Earlier this month, the Government confirmed £12m-worth of station improvements on the East Coast line, along with improved catering and the abolition of reservation charges for the duration of the state's two-year running of the service.

Lord Adonis said: "East Coast will remain in public hands for two years and there will be full continuity of service. But this is not a care and maintenance job. I want to see real improvements in the service."