Rail franchise bids in

Railtrack - run by Sir Bob Horton, chairman (left), and John Edmonds, the chief executive - and the Government breathed a sigh of relief yesterday when another crucial step in rail privatisation was passed with the closing of bids for the first three passenger franchises, writes Russell Hotten.

The Government is conducting a Railtrack roadshow among city institutions to drum up support for next year's privatisation. The prospect of insufficient bidders coming forward yesterday for the franchises would have caused a big embarrassment.

Although the Government refused to disclose how many bidders had registered, it is understood that several potential buyers have come forward for each franchise. The first three lines up for grabs are the Great Western, South West Trains and the London-Tilbury-Southend Line, which together represent annual revenue of pounds 430m per year, or about 20 per cent of British Rail's total.

One of the bidders for Great Western is a management and employee buyout led by the line's managing director, Brian Scott.

He said his bid focused on "substantial customer service improvements" and there would be an announcement next week about "important guarantees on service improvements and details of innovative product developments".

Sea Containers, the shipping and hotels group, said it had entered two bids, one for Great Western Trains and another joint bid for Great Western and South West together.

Christopher Garnett, the executive handling SeaCon's bidding, said the tender offer was for one seven-year franchise and one "longer" proposal.