THE new operator for the rail network’s “flagship” London to Scotland line was announced today by the Government.
Transport group National Express has won the battle to run the East Coast Mainline franchise.
The company beat off opposition from First Group, Arriva and a partnership between Virgin, Stagecoach and current operator GNER.
National Express will take over the running of the route in mid-December. It will pay the Department for Transport £1.4bn during the franchise, which will run until March 2015.
Under the deal, the operator will be expected to deliver faster journey times, with London to Leeds services taking two hours, as well as more London to Edinburgh trains with journeys lasting four hours 20 minutes.
National Express has committed to ensuring that nine out of 10 trains run on time, as well as environmental benefits such as reducing fuel consumption per passenger kilometre by 28% over the life of the franchise, and investment in four “green” stations.
In 2005 GNER was awarded a ten-year contract to run East Coast services but this was subsequently torn up last December and replaced with a temporary deal after the company said it could not pay an agreed £1.3bn premium promised to the Government.
GNER, whose parent company is Bermuda-based Sea Containers, has run the service since 1997. Their money problems prompted the DfT to announce it was ending GNER’s franchise early.
Sea Containers, filed for bankruptcy protection in the US last year.
Rail minister Tom Harris said: “There is provision in this contract for extra services and fewer delays. National Express will also invest in stations and on-board services.”
National Express said unregulated fares are likely to rise by an average of retail price inflation (RPI) plus 2.1% a year during the franchise.
The Government currently limits annual rises in regulated fares to RPI plus 1%.
National Express chief executive Richard Bowker said: “We have won with a bid which is ambitious, deliverable and structured to generate shareholder value.”
Mr Harris said the fare rises were “significantly less” than those announced by other franchises recently.
“The whole deal is very good news not just for passengers, but for the taxpayer.”
He added: “Provided that National Express are committed to and deliver the performance improvements written into this contract, I do not think most passengers are going to have much to complain about.”
He said: “I don’t buy this idea that people are being priced off the railways; the very opposite is actually happening.”
GNER’s chief executive Jonathan Metcalfe said: “Naturally, we are disappointed that our joint bid was unsuccessful, but we now have to look to the future and work with the successful bidder to create an even bigger and better railway. The needs of our passengers will always come first.
“National Express will inherit a high-performing and fast-growing railway with fantastic staff and an enviable reputation for high service standards. Over the past 11 years, we have transformed this railway and built up considerable goodwill amongst passengers and our many stakeholders. We will do everything we can to ensure a smooth and professional handover.”