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Sir Richard: ‘I will bid for the East Coast line’
SIR Richard Branson will bid to take control of the East Coast train route when the Government invites submissions later this year, the Virgin boss revealed during a visit to the region.
The fiasco over the handling of the West Coast Main Line franchise, which has cost the taxpayer at least £50m, will not deter the billionaire from attempting to take control of the route that links Scotland with the North-East and London.
The move marks a U-turn for Sir Richard, who said last August that based on what he regarded as a “flawed” bidding system, which awarded routes to the highest bidder, he would scrap any future bid for East Coast.
Speaking yesterday at Virgin Money’s Newcastle headquarters, he told The Northern Echo: “We want to get our hands on the East Coast because I think we can transform it.
“We think we can bring to the East Coast what we did for the West Coast if the franchising process is one that we think is fair and open and focuses on quality, then we would have a pitch.”
Britain’s most famous entrepreneur has long coveted the line regarded as the jewel in the crown of the UK rail network.
He is still smarting after ministers spurned his previous bids to run the route and handed control to operators GNER and, more recently, National Express.
Both franchises collapsed amid accusations they had over-bid for the line. The Government was forced to step in and effectively take over the service in 2009, after National Express admitted it could no longer afford to run it.
Failures by civil servants over the West Coast rail contract will cost taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, it emerged this week.
After Department for Transport (DfT) errors in the process had been identified, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin scrapped the bidding, which had seen Virgin Trains lose out to rival transport company First- Group in the battle for a 13- year West Coast franchise.
Instead, Virgin is carrying on running the West Coast service until November next year, when a new bidding process will start.
There was a lack of leadership at the DfT and a failure to “get basic processes right”
over the West Coast fiasco, a report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said. MPs raised concerns that unless lessons were learned, the costly failures could be repeated in future rail projects.
Sir Richard said: “I would be very surprised if there is not an awful lot of effort to ensure that the mistakes made last time are never made again.”
He said that if Virgin was to bid for any more franchises he expected the Government to ensure that it was “an open and transparent process.”