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Ministers urged to keep rail link in state hands
MINISTERS have been urged to keep a vital rail link in state hands and scrap plans for "rip-off merchants from the private sector" to take control.
The nationalised railway company operating the East Coast main line has returned £208m to taxpayers amid soaring revenues, fuelling criticism over plans to return it to private hands.
Directly Operated Railways (DOR), which took over the running of the route that links the North-East with London and Scotland four years ago, saw turnover for the year to April leap 4.2 per cent to £693.8m, as ticket sales, catering and parking fees increased.
The figures reignited the debate about the Government's intention to re-privatise the line - with a new franchise expected to start in February 2015.
Labour and rail unions have questioned the need for re-privatisation, arguing that DOR is returning a high level of money to the Department of Transport and receives a lower taxpayer subsidy than others.
Last week, it was announced that Channel Tunnel high-speed company Eurostar was bidding to operate the route jointly with French firm Keolis.
The successful bidder is expected to be announced in February 2015 with Virgin Trains among the contenders to take charge of the flagship 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.
Doug Sutherland, chairman of DOR, said under his company's stewardship East Coast has recorded improved levels of customer satisfaction and punctuality over the period.
Mr Sutherland said: "The business plan for the remainder of the franchise during 2013/14 and the first two months of 2015 will see the good work continuing, with the twin aims of ensuring a successful transfer of the business back to the private sector - in good condition, and maximising the value of the franchise achieved by the Government and the taxpayer."
He blamed Network Rail for a spate of failures that have more recently caused delays, saying DOR remained very concerned about its performance.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: "These figures destroy from top to bottom this Governments case for handing the East Coast back to the rip-off merchants from the private sector.
"DOR are paying even more money back to the Treasury, in contrast to the fat profits extracted from the privatised routes, and yet the politicians are prepared to completely ignore that," he added.
DOR's accounts also reveal the East Coast carried 19.05 million passengers in the year, up 1 per cent on the previous 12 months.
It said East Coast had the highest average loads on its trains of any British operator, more than 36 per cent ahead of the next busiest line.
DOR paid its chief executive Michael Holden a salary of £224,800 for the year, up from £156,000 in the previous 12 months.
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