Train operators vie for east coast route

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The Independent Online

The battle for the East Coast Mainline is shaping up as a five-way contest after the Strategic Rail Authority yesterday kicked off the process by inviting expressions of interest.

FirstGroup, which was recently snubbed in its bid for the new Greater Anglia franchise, was first off the mark, confirming that it would be bidding for the London-Edinburgh route in competition with the incumbent operator, Great North Eastern Railways.

Virgin Trains, the operator of the West Coast Mainline, also said it was likely to express an interest although it had not yet made up its mind. There is some hesitation among Virgin executives about re-bidding for the east coast after their bruising and ultimately unsuccessful bid to wrest the franchise from GNER two years ago.

Other potential bidders include the German railway Deutsche Bahn, which is yet to establish a foothold in the UK rail industry, and NedRail, the Dutch state railway, which recently took over Mersey Rail.

FirstGroup already operates one inter-city franchise, Great Western Trains, and has recently taken over Hull Trains, which runs long-distance services to London on the East Coast Mainline. This weekend it will also begin operating its new TransPennine trains on part of the east coast route.

When it bid for the franchise in 2002, Virgin Trains proposed a hugely ambitious £4.5bn scheme to modernise the line and introduce an entirely new fleet of trains.

However, the SRA lacks the funds for such a project and it is unlikely that the private sector would provide the funding. A Virgin spokesman said that if it bid this time around, it would be a more modest proposal though still based on new rolling stock - possibly a fleet of jet-powered trains, a concept it is testing out with Bombardier in the US.

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