A decision to let National Express bid for the chance to take back control of the East Coast Main Line was condemned as “incredible” by MPs, as they called for the line to remain under public control.
Ministers have confirmed that National Express will be free to put in a bid for East Coast franchise - even though it walked away from the line in 2009.
The operator took over the line in 2007 and had been due to run it until 2015, but quit after just two years because it was running out of money.
But ministers have said it is free to try again, when a new franchise is awarded next year.
Transport minister Simon Burns confirmed that National Express would be free to bid for the line in the same way as any other company, in a response to a Commons question.
The decision was condemned by Labour MPs as they urged the Government to scrap plans for a new franchise entirely.
They said the East Coast Main Line should remain under the control of Directly Operated Railways, a Government-owned business set up to run it after National Express abandoned it.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Easington MP Graham Morris said: “Incredibly, despite failing to deliver on their commitments, the Government won’t stop National Express or indeed other failed operators from bidding for the rail franchise should they decide to go ahead with it.”
He added: “Whether in public or the private sector, companies that fail to deliver on their commitments or promise to the taxpayer shouldn’t be allowed to take over franchises which they’ve shown they’re not competent to run.
“It isn’t just that National Express failed on one franchise and they’re bidding for another, it’s actually the East Coast line that they’ve already failed to deliver on, so I think the point’s doubly made.”
Labour MPs lined up in a Commons debate to urge ministers to keep the line under public control.
North Tyneside’s Mary Glindon pointed out that the publicly owned operator had made a profit of £600m, which had gone to the taxpayer. By contrast, profits on the London to Manchester West Coast Main Line had gone to shareholders of rail operator Virgin Trains, she said.
Labour pointed out that Lord Adonis, a former transport secretary, backed keeping the line in public control. He had previously supported awarding a new franchise, but last night he said: “In the last four years East Coast has established itself as one of the best train operating companies in the country, both operationally and commercially.
“This has fundamentally changed the situation, and it is right and proper that East Coast should be allowed to continue as a public sector comparator to the existing private franchises.”
A number of North East MPs are to hand out leaflets to passengers at Newcastle Central Station today asking them to back a campaign to keep the line under public control.
They include Gateshead’s Ian Mearns who said: “The Government’s motives are entirely ideological and apart from being starved of short-term investment, it is doing very well as it is. It should continue as a Government owned and not-for-profit service.”
The line should continue as a Government-owned and not-for-profit service