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East Coast main line rail franchise opens for bids


The East Coast main line is expected to be back in private hands in less than two years under rail franchise plans announced by the Government today.

The line - a key London to Scotland route - has been run under the control of the Department for Transport since November 2009 after transport company National Express pulled out.

Today, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced the start of a bidding competition for the East Coast franchise with an expected start of service by the new operator in February 2015.

He also published a detailed timetable for all rail franchise arrangements over the next eight years, following a major review after the West Coast bidding process had to be abandoned last year.

A new 13-year franchise for the West Coast had been awarded to transport company FirstGroup which won a bidding war with the incumbent firm, Virgin Trains.

But the bidding had to be scrapped after serious mistakes by Department for Transport civil servants in the bidding process.

This led to two independent reviews - one on the West Coast fiasco and the other on the whole franchise process.

Today's announcement is the direct result of the reviews and effectively sets the franchise process back on track.

Mr McLoughlin said: "This programme is a major step in delivering tangible improvements to services, providing long-term certainty to the market and supporting our huge programme of rail investment.

"Above all, in future franchise competitions we are placing passengers in the driving seat by ensuring that their views and satisfaction levels are taken into account when deciding which companies run our railway services.

"Franchising has been a force for good in the story of Britain's railways, transforming an industry that was in decline into one that today carries record numbers of passengers."

Rail unions reacted with dismay to the East Coast news, pointing out that the private sector had twice given up the franchise, with GNER pulling out some years ago.

They also highlighted the fact that the taxpayer is likely to have to foot a bill as high as £50 million over the botched West Coast franchise.

RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: "Despite wasting hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on the franchising circus, and instead of learning the lessons of the privatisation disasters on the East and West Coast main lines and across the rest of the network, the Government has this morning given the green light to a whole new wave of profiteering that will have the train companies laughing all the way to the bank.

"The proposed reprivatisation of the East Coast, after the public sector rescued the service following two private failures, proves conclusively that the political class have learnt absolutely nothing when it comes to our railways.

"This is a politically-inspired wrecking move designed to flog off this publicly-owned intercity route before the next election regardless of the consequences."

He went on: "With this news coming just a day before the 50th anniversary of the Beeching Report that ripped Britain's railways to pieces, the ConDem administration is setting up yet another sell-off of state assets in a further act of grotesque rail vandalism.

"The public need to know that, while fares are going up and safety is being compromised, the Government's priority remains the profits of the greedy train operating companies. No wonder 70% of the people now support RMT's call for full renationalisation."

Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA rail union, said: "The Tories are just like the Bourbons when it comes to rail - they ignore all the lessons of history.

"The £50 million West Coast line fiasco revealed that private franchises are a shambles. So they go and privatise the only successful publicly-owned franchise, the East Coast line.

"This is an act of political spite to reward their friends in the City and to tie the hands of an incoming Labour government in 2015. The most expensive rail network in Europe is about to get even more expensive."

Details of the franchise deal today revealed that nearly every planned new franchise date has been put back.

On West Coast, for example, Virgin - having originally lost out to FirstGroup for the new 13-year franchise - had reached agreement with the Department for Transport to carry on until November 2014.

Under the new franchise timetable announced today, the Government said a new West Coast franchise would not start until April 2017.

The Great Western franchise, run by FirstGroup and due to end in October this year, will not start until July 2016, while the Northern franchise, due to end in April 2014, will not begin until February 2016.

There is an even longer delay on the South Eastern franchise due to end in April 2014. This will not start until June 2018.

The first of the new franchises to start will be Essex Thameside, where the franchise ends in May this year and will begin in September 2014.