Rail bidders told, don't sell us out

Business chiefs last night warned companies battling to run East Coast trains not to shortchange the North-East.

Business chiefs last night warned companies battling to run East Coast trains not to shortchange the North-East.

The warning came as Rail Minister Tom Harris yesterday sought to head off mounting concerns about the East Coast Main Line - linking the region with London and Scotland - as a competition to find a firm to replace current operator GNER gathers pace.

Mr Harris said he was optimistic that planned station improvements could still go ahead and promised that the current operation would "broadly continue" under the new company, which is due to take over by the end of the year.

But he failed to give an explicit commitment that upgrades to Newcastle Central station and other smaller Northumberland stations would not be at risk, and said it was up to the new company to decide the future of catering services.

Shortlisted companies First Group, Sunderland-based Arriva, and a joint bid between Stagecoach and Virgin also said they were unable to set out their plans because of strict rules governing the franchise competition.

But rival bidder National Express promised to build on existing services and put passengers at the "heart" of the company's operation.

An industry source also said the bidders recognised GNER's standards of customer service had at least to be maintained and stations were the shop front of the railways that attracted passengers.

And the North-East chamber of Commerce said passengers would not tolerate bad quality trains and stations in the face of improvements to regional airports.

Spokesman Mike Parker said there were good companies involved in the competition, but added: "It is inherent in any bid that they cannot provide a second class service or people will vote with their feet.

"People will not tolerate stations that are not of a sufficient quality. We are fully confident they would be keen to make the investment."

He also stressed the importance of high-quality catering to the region's business travellers, saying: "It is a 6am breakfast or a 7pm dinner on the way back. If you want to put in a decent day's work, you are not going to work on air.

"But whether people are going to get it off or on the train is up to the bidder." Ian Walker, from campaign group Railfuture North-East, said he would like to see the rail minister's comments as positive because station improvements benefited passengers and boosted patronage.

But he said that there had to be an "element of doubt" when nothing had yet been written formally about such upgrades.

The latest developments came as MPs debated the future of inter-city train services with Rail Minister Tom Harris in Parliament.

Ashok Kumar, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, said there was "geniune fear" about the future while highly-professional staff at GNER were worried about their jobs.

"We should ensure that we retain the excellent premier league service that we already have. A lot lies in the minister's hands and I hope that he will take seriously the issues that I have flagged up and ensure that we indeed continue to have a first-class service," the Labour MP said.

He also suggested that pressure on the crowded East Coast Main Line could be eased if other parallel routes were better used - including the Leamside route.

Mr Harris said staff transferring to a new operator would be legally protected and that services would be maintained broadly at current levels.

He also expressed optimism about station upgrades after the debate, saying bidders were being encouraged to work with infrastructure firm Network Rail, but said catering was up to them and not the Government.

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