VIRGIN NETS TWO YEAR RAIL DEAL; Branson Will Run West Coast until 2014
Byline: ROB MERRICK
VIRGIN was controversially handed a fresh two-year contract to run the West Coast rail line - just hours before a report appeared to clear ministers of blame for the franchise fiasco.
The Transport Secretary sparked surprise by announcing Sir Richard Branson''s company would continue to operate Liverpool-to-London trains through to November 2014.
In October, Patrick McLoughlin said the deal would be for as little as nine months - before a quick-fire competition for an interim two-year franchise - apparently because of legal fears.
In the Commons, Maria Eagle, Labour''s transport spokeswoman and the Garston and Halewood MP, raised the prospect of a fresh legal challenge because of a two-year contract with no competition.
Labour had argued for 'Directly Operated Railways' - ' - the state-owned company that has run the East Coast Main Line for the last three years - to takeover the West Coast as well.
Indeed, the new timetable, putting a long-term franchise in place in late 2014, appeared designed to shut off any prospect of nationalisation, should Labour win the 2015 general election. s
But Mr McLoughlin told MPs: The terms we have negotiated with Virgin secure a continued service for passengers at the same levels they enjoy today - and in some cases better.
Today, the last of the 106 government-funded Pendolino carriages comes into service. That will allow more trains and longer trains on this vital route.
Meanwhile, Mr McLoughlin leapt gratefully on the conclusions of the Laidlaw inquiry into the shock decision to cancel the handing over of the line from Virgin to FirstGroup.
As expected, the report condemned the way the department for transport (Dft) ploughed on with the award of the franchise, despite flaws that were known as long ago as the start of 2012. …