Three on West Coast shortlist

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Stagecoach, the rapidly expanding transport company, has been shortlisted to operate four passenger rail franchises, including the prestigious but run-down InterCity West Coast main line.

Richard Branson's Virgin Group and shipping giant Sea Containers are also still in the running for the West Coast line, which connects London with the west Midlands, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow and is one of the busiest lines in the country. All three companies were shortlisted from 14 potential bidders.

Stagecoach, which runs the South West Trains company, is also being considered for the Central Trains, North West Regional and ScotRail routes.

The West Coast line was recently promised a pounds 1.5bn cash injection from Railtrack, the former British Rail subsidiary which operates Britain's rail network.

Bidders for the 400-mile route must agree to using new, 125 mph tilting trains as a way of cutting journey times. Tilting trains, already popular in continental Europe, take corners at a higher speed than conventional trains and could cut the journey time between London and Manchester by 30 minutes to two hours.

The West Coast main line is one of the last of BR's 25 passenger franchises to be let. A final decision will be made by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, the industry regulator.

Last week, Virgin was announced as preferred bidder for the extensive CrossCountry rail route. Virgin is also part of the London & Continental Railways consortium which runsEurostar trains.