East Coast and West Coast rail franchise arrangements announced

East Coast train
Image caption The East Coast rail line is a key route running from London to Scotland

Private companies have been invited to bid for the East Coast rail franchise, which has been run in the public sector since 2009.

The London to Scotland route was run by National Express before then.

In a separate announcement, the Department for Transport said Virgin would continue to run the West Coast Main Line until April 2017.

Ten of the country's 16 rail franchises are due for renewal before the general election, expected in 2015.

'Major step'

Virgin Trains had previously been running the West Coast Main Line but initially lost that deal when the contract for it was awarded to FirstGroup.

However, this decision was later overturned after the transport secretary found there had been "significant technical flaws" in the franchise bidding process.

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Media captionTransport Minister Simon Burns: "Considerable amount learnt from West Coast fiasco"

This was because of mistakes by Department for Transport staff and three civil servants were suspended. The government also halted rail franchising.

As a result, Virgin was given the right to run the rail line for longer while the franchise bidding system was sorted out, and has now had that extended further, until 2017.

The company is also understood to be keen to bid for the new East Coast contract.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin announced the start of a bidding process for the East Coast franchise on Tuesday.

He also published a detailed timetable for all rail franchise arrangements over the next eight years.

He 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."

Unions critical

But rail unions are unhappy with the news of the East Coast line being put up for private bidding, pointing out that the private sector had twice given up the franchise before.

Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT - Rail Maritime and Transport union - said: "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."

Manuel Cortes, leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association rail union, said: "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."

Shadow transport minister Maria Eagle also criticised the decision to privatise the line.

"Instead of focusing on the chaos in franchising caused by his government's incompetence, the secretary of state has decided to embark on an unnecessary and costly privatisation of the East Coast intercity services, a privatisation due to take place weeks before the date of the next general election," she said.

The East Coast route, running out of London King's Cross, serves locations including Peterborough, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Berwick upon Tweed, Edinburgh's Waverley station, Glasgow, Inverness and Aberdeen.

The government also announced details of the various franchise deals coming up for bidding, with many of them having been put back, meaning the current operating company will have its franchise extended.

The Great Western franchise, run by FirstGroup and due to end in October this year, will not start until July 2016.

The Northern franchise, due to end in April 2014, will not begin until February 2016 and the South Eastern franchise, also due to end in April 2014, 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.

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