Region's spotlight on rail franchise rivals

The future of East Coast rail services could become clearer within days as rival companies battling to run trains face a grilling from regional political and business leaders.

The future of East Coast rail services could become clearer within days as rival companies battling to run trains face a grilling from regional political and business leaders.

The four bidders for the East Coast rail franchise - linking the North-east with London and Scotland - will be questioned about their plans at a special event at Gateshead Civic Centre on Friday.

The Parliamentary-style hearing comes amid fears that planned station upgrades may be dropped and catering facilities downgraded in the wake of the franchise being re-let after current operator GNER admitted it could not keep up with a £1.3bn payment promised to the Government.

Rival bidders Arriva Trains, National Express Group, First Group and a partnership of Virgin, Stagecoach and GNER are being invited to outline their plans before facing questions in front of an audience of regional community and business representatives.

The event has been organised by Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland, who will chair a panel fielding questions with support from other regional groups such as the Association of North-East Councils.

Mr Clelland, a member of the Commons transport committee, said: "This is a really important franchise for our region, bringing together employment opportunities, business links and tourism.

"I am looking forward to meeting the bidders and hearing their plans for the region.

"My priority is to ensure that whoever wins the bid, we get the best result possible for passengers and the region as a whole."

James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC), said the East Coast rail route was of "extreme importance" to the region as the principle high-speed link to London and promised to underline the needs of the business community as a panel member.

He added: "NECC's role on this panel is to convey the needs of the business community who view this service as a prized asset for connecting the region south to London and north to Edinburgh."

TUC regional secretary Kevin Rowan, Martin Murphy, chairman of campaign group Railfuture North-East, and regional assembly deputy chief executive Malcolm Bowes will also be on the panel.

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