Sir Richard Branson offers to run trains for free


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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson has offered to run the West Coast Main Line for free to allow Parliament time to scrutinise an "outrageous" decision to award the franchise to rival FirstGroup.

The entrepreneur, who claims FirstGroup's bid will lead to "almost certain bankruptcy", made a last-ditch appeal to the Government to delay signing the 13-year contract tomorrow. He said Virgin Trains and Stagecoach would operate the joint venture on a not-for-profit basis or donate profits to charity to allow Parliament time to investigate the decision. Sir Richard is also pressing for an independent audit of the Department for Transport's decision over the £10bn deal.

His plea comes after Louise Ellman, the chairman of the House of Commons Transport Committee, wrote to Transport Secretary Justine Greening asking her to hold off signing the final contract. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition against the decision.In an opinion piece for the Sunday Telegraph Sir Richard said: "We must ensure that this crucial decision is taken with all the facts correctly assessed and understood."

FirstGroup claims it will deliver better value for taxpayers and plans additional InterCity West Coast services, more seats and fare reductions. A DfT spokesman said: "The winning bidder was decided by a fair and established process and no reason has been advanced to convince DfT not to sign the agreement."