NEWCASTLE should get a key role in running East Coast train services under radical proposals being developed by the leader of the city’s council.
Nick Forbes has revealed he is already in talks with his counterparts in Edinburgh and York about putting together a plan to transform services linking the North East with London and Scotland.
Under the vision, big cities along the route would work together, and the Department for Transport (DfT) would give them the power to plan and run services in partnership with a train operator.
“It is too important to be left to an incompetent DfT,” said Coun Forbes.
The Labour man’s proposals were outlined after the DfT came under fire over the bungled process to award a new West Coast franchise, which could land taxpayers with a bill running into tens of millions of pounds. The debacle has sparked fresh doubts about the entire franchising system used to select private companies to run trains.
Calls are growing for East Coast services in remain in public hands, which happened after two previous private operators hit financial problems.
But the DfT is pushing ahead with plans for a new private operator to run the service by December 2013.
Coun Forbes said: “The East Coast is a vital transport connection for the North and the North East, not just to London but crucially for the future to Edinburgh,” he said.
“I am actively leading a conversation about whether we should say to the DfT: ‘We think we can do it better, more effectively and provide better services’.
“Those conversations are at an early stage, but should demonstrate to Government of the importance of the network and our ambition to run major projects in the future.”
He said big cities working together were in a good position to do the job and potentially make savings by cutting out the bureaucracy in the current system.
“If the Government is serious about devolution, this is the kind of major transport infrastructure that should be run by a partnership of local authorities,” added Coun Forbes.
Such a scheme is already in place in Merseyside and is being explored by Yorkshire and Manchester councils in relation to the next Northern Rail franchise.
Ross Smith, director of policy at the North East Chamber of Commerce, said the DfT needed to “get a grip” because the East Coast route was of huge importance.
Referring to the franchise process, he said: “The main thing is the DfT getting its house in order because we don’t want the same mistakes on the East Coast next year.” Mr Smith added: “We want the best service.
“We think getting it back into private hands will enable more investment for the long term, providing that they can do that in a stable environment and the franchise is designed correctly.
“But having said that [current publicly owned operator] East Coast have been doing a very good job since taking it on.
“They have shown it can be handled well under public ownership. But we need a long-term franchise so that investment can happen.”
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