BUSINESS leaders in the region today welcomed the awarding of the East Coast Main Line rail franchise.
But at the same time, passenger watchdogs have raised concerns about fare prices.
National Express beat off the challenge of three other bidders to run the East Coast Main Line (ECML) franchise. It will replace present operator GNER and will have to pay the Government £1.4bn during the life of its franchise which runs form December until March 2015.
Unregulated fares - generally off-peak tickets - are expected to rise by an average of 2.1% above inflation each year of the franchise.
Rebekah Gaze, North East Chamber of Commerce transport policy adviser, said: “The East Coast Mainline has been in limbo for more than a year while we awaited the decision on who would take over running this crucial route. We are delighted that this period of treading water has finally come to an end.
“National Express has a strong record in running rail services and has committed to running a service comparable to that which was provided by GNER. This is vital as the East Coast Mainline is too important a route to be run as a budget service. What is of paramount importance is that prices remain competitive and cost-effective. “The Government is encouraging people to use public transport instead of cars to ease congestion. It cannot, therefore, allow passengers to be priced off the rail.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: “We remain concerned at the accumulative affect of year-on-year unregulated fare rises way above inflation.”
Passenger Focus manager Guy Dangerfield said the above-inflation rises could “could amount to a 45% price increase over the length of the franchise” and could mean a York to London standard open return ticket rising from £179 to £259 by 2015.
GNER has run ECML services since 1997 and won a competition to retain the franchise in 2005. But the Department for Transport retendered the deal after GNER’s parent company, Bermuda-based Sea Containers, filed for bankruptcy protection in the US last year.
National Express will be expected to deliver faster journey times, improve punctuality and put green policies in place.
Rail Minister Tom Harris said the fare rises were “significantly less” than those announced by other franchises recently.