'Build on good rail link for prosperity'

Business and political leaders have challenged ministers to maintain high-quality East Coast rail services as a Government competition to find a new operator enters its final phase.

Business and political leaders have challenged ministers to maintain high-quality East Coast rail services as a Government competition to find a new operator enters its final phase.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has been urged to improve links to London and within the North-East, upgrade stations and maintain catering standards as part of a new East Coast rail franchise which will be awarded to a private train operator later this summer.

The call is contained in an open letter to the DfT signed by Hilary Knox, deputy director of the Association of North-East Councils (Anec), and Malcolm Bowes, who is deputy chief executive of the unelected regional assembly.

Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland and North-East Chamber of Commerce boss James Ramsbotham, regional TUC secretary Kevin Rowan and chairman of campaign group Railfuture North-East, Martin Murphy, have also signed the letter, which says action is needed to maintain the region's economic growth.

They say a half-hourly service to London from Newcastle, Durham and Darlington must be sustained and improved - and effective links provided to rural areas in Northumberland and into Scotland.

The letter also suggests any new operator should follow GNER's example in providing high-quality services, being a positive employer and working with regional groups. And success will pay dividends for the region and the new franchise-holder, with five million passengers from the North-East already using services, the senior figures say.

The high-level challenge to ministers comes after companies contending to run services were quizzed about their plans at a regional event by political and business chiefs last month.

Rival operators Arriva Trains, National Express Group, First Group and a partnership of Virgin, Stagecoach and GNER also yesterday submitted their final bids to the Government for the franchise. The re-letting of the contract comes after current operator GNER admitted it could not keep up with a £1.3bn payment promised to the Government.

Anec deputy director Hilary Knox said: "Local government has taken every opportunity, through the association's advocacy and influencing role, to make the case to the DfT about the importance of the East Coast Main Line, which is arguably greater for the North-East than any other part of the country.

"We know that transport is one of the key economic drivers of economic prosperity and, in that context, the East Coast Main Line is vital to the continuing economic development prospects of the region and in helping to attract business, visitors and inward investment."

She said: "The current high standards of service on the route are vital to maintain and enhance in the future, which is a key message we hope DfT respond positively to in taking forward discussions on the new franchise to the next stage."

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