THE Government has been accused of “economic vandalism” after it revealed a shortlist of bidders under plans to re-privatise the East Coast mainline, just four years after a state-owned company had to step in to take over the franchise.
East Coast has been running services since 2009 after National Express gave up the route, which runs through Yorkshire from London to Scotland, because it was said to be a loss-making enterprise at the time.
Now some of the biggest transport firms already running rail routes across the UK, including the First Group, Stagecoach, Virgin, Keolis and Eurostar, are on the list of preferred bidders for the 393-mile route.
However, the announcement has sparked a row over whether the franchise should remain in public ownership. Unions and other groups have been campaigning for months to halt re-privatisation of the franchise.
Manuel Cortes, the leader of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association rail union, said: “This is nothing short of economic vandalism by a Chancellor who does not want voters to know the truth about the East Coast line – it is a public sector success story.
“It has been the cheapest franchise to run for the past five years and it has produced the greatest return to taxpayers, over £600m. By selling it off before the election, he wants to hide those facts.
“We have the highest fares in Europe because we are the only country with a fragmented privately run rail network.”
Rail Minister Stephen Hammond defended the decision to push ahead with the plans to re-privatise the line, and stressed the move would secure its long-term future.
He said: “Giving passengers more will be at the heart of the new East Coast franchise. When these companies are developing their proposals they should be looking at ways to innovate and grow the service.
“We have embarked on one of the biggest programmes of rail investment ever, with over £35bn being spent to enhance and run our rail network over the next five years.
“But for our railways to continue to grow we need strong private sector partners who can invest and innovate in ways that deliver a world class service.”
The three shortlisted bidders are East Coast Trains Ltd (First Group plc), Keolis/Eurostar East Coast Limited (Keolis (UK) Limited and Eurostar International Limited), and Inter City Railways Limited (Stagecoach Transport Holdings Limited and Virgin Holdings Limited).
The First Group operates First Great Western, Stagecoach own South West Trains, Virgin runs services from London to the north and Wales, while Keolis has a stake in Govia, which operates Southern and South Eastern. The new franchise will start early next year.
Bob Crow, the General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, said: “This Government is prepared to take a third gamble on their big business friends in a desperate bid to privatise the East Coast mainline before the election even though they are well aware that the whole reckless exercise will cost the British public hundreds of millions in lost income.”
He stressed that the publicly-owned East Coast was the country’s most successful train operator, and added: “The fight to stop this outrage goes on.”
In a statement, The Department for Transport said: “While the East Coast franchise has been stabilised under government ownership since 2009, the route now needs a long-term private sector operator to plan for the future and meet the increasing demands for more trains serving even more destinations.”