West Coast rail row: Sir Richard Branson offers to run the line ‘for free’
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 has claimed that FirstGroup’s bid will lead to “almost certain bankruptcy”, yesterday 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 if the franchise needed to be extended beyond December for a few months and this would give MPs time to investigate the franchise decision.
Sir Richard is also pressing for an independent audit of the Department for Transport’s decision over the £10 billion 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, saying that “important issues” had been raised.
More than 100,000 members of the public have signed an online petition against the decision.
A campaign supported by double Olympic champion Mo Farah, business tycoon and television personality Lord Sugar and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been launched to highlight opposition to the decision.
Sir Richard said yesterday: “It is far better for MPs to have the chance to debate the issues, and question ministers on the detail before the decision is finalised.
“To assist in this process, there should be an independent audit of the DfT decision to ensure it has been based on correct criteria and reliable forecasting of customer numbers, revenue and payments to Government.
“We must ensure that this crucial decision is taken with all the facts correctly assessed and understood.”
Sir Richard accepted that he has a “vested interest” but said the number of people speaking out against the decision showed it was “unjust”.
The entrepreneur said: “City analysts, politicians, media commentators and, most importantly, our many loyal customers have seized on this decision as outrageous, unjust and simply wrong.”
Virgin has operated the West Coast line since 1997 and has more than doubled annual passenger numbers over 15 years.
FirstGroup has claimed it will deliver better value for taxpayers.
It plans major improvements to the InterCity West Coast franchise to enhance the customer experience, including improved wifi and catering.
The firm also revealed it would introduce 11 new 125mph six-car electric trains on the Birmingham-to-Glasgow route and provide more direct services between destinations. It also plans to introduce additional services and increasing the number of seats on popular routes.
FirstGroup also plans to reduce standard anytime fares by an average 15 per cent.
The government says FirstGroup’s new trains should add a further 12,000 seats a day on West Coast routes from 2016.
About 31 million passengers travel on the West Coast Mainline every year.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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