GNER refuses to buy trains until it wins franchise deal

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The Independent Online
THE COMPANY that runs Britain's longest stretch of high-speed railway provoked an outcry yesterday by saying it would not pay for new trains to relieve overcrowding unless the Government extended its seven- year franchise.

Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), which operates the East Coast main line between London and Scotland, said it had asked ministers to extend its right to run trains for another eight years in exchange for buying up to 10 more tilting trains and building three new stations.

It said the new stock would allow it to carry 25 per cent more people within four years but warned that, without the new stock, it would only grow by 5 per cent. GNER said it had been the victim of its own success, running more trains and attracting 18 per cent more passengers since it took over the line in 1996. GNER, part of the Sea Containers group, said its franchise should also be extended to show poorly performing rivals such as Virgin how to run a railway properly.

Christopher Garnett, GNER chief executive, said: "We are looking to bring in eight or 10 tilting trains. That's what the route needs to deal with the capacity problems but that only deals with today's problems."

He said if the franchise was not extended the company would not fulfil a promise issued in September 1997 to buy two new tilting trains. He said GNER had underestimated the cost of upgrading the track to take the trains and it would be uneconomic for only two.

GNER's comments provoked an angry response from a senior Labour backbencher. Andrew Bennett, a member of the Commons Transport Select Committee, said GNER knew the position when it accepted the franchise. "If they don't deliver what they promised then they should lose their contract."

He said GNER's bid was an "outright cheek" as privatisation had so far ensured that shareholders got "the caviar and cream" while passengers suffered overcrowding.

Save Our Railways, a pressure group, said more passengers made the need for new trains more urgent. "Sea Containers have broken all the promises they have made to passengers about new trains and the inevitable result is more overcrowding. Now that overcrowding is being used to try to blackmail the Government to extend the franchise."

But Mr Garnett said GNER had invested pounds 40m against a franchise promise of pounds 22m, adding: "We are spending phenomenal amounts of money."

Mr Garnett blamed poor performance by other train companies for bringing the industry into disrepute. "We have the best level of service of any train company. One of the ways to raise standards is to give GNER an extension to say to other companies - `if you had their levels of service then your franchise would be extended'."