SIR Richard Branson today sets out his hopes of running East Coast trains.
The Virgin Money chief is preparing to enter the bidding for the nationalised line despite ongoing controversy at the Government handling of his firm’s West Coast franchise.
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But speaking to The Journal on a visit to Newcastle, Sir Richard said he had not been deterred from bidding to take on the line from London through Newcastle and Northumberland up to Scotland.
Virgin Trains has already bid for East Coast services, losing out to the likes of GNER, which failed only a year after signing a £1.3bn contract to run the line.
National Express took over in 2007 with a £1.4bn eight-year contract, but less than two years later that proved to be too much and the route was nationalised.
Now, as questions continue over how civil servants mishandled the West Coast contract, Sir Richard has claimed he wants more trains.
He said: “We have effectively ‘won’ East Coast on three different occasions, in that the people who got it over us all went bust and we were just runners-up.
“We would love to get our hands on the East Coast. I think we could transform it. It’s sad that the franchising process has resulted in this languishing. That’s not a reflection on this Government, it was a previous Government who did this.
“We think we can do to the East Coast what we did to the West Coast. If the franchising process is one we think to be fair when it comes back, if it is transparent and open, then I think Virgin will have a pitch at the East Coast.
“I would be very surprised if an awful lot of effort has not gone into making sure the mistakes of the previous time do not happen again if we bid on the East Coast or West Coast lines.”
Last year Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin scrapped the bidding which had seen Virgin Trains lose out to rival transport company FirstGroup in the battle for a new 13-year West Coast franchise following legal errors made by the Department for Transport. Instead, Virgin is carrying on running the West Coast service until November 2014, with a new bidding process starting after that.
Last night a leading passenger group welcomed the news. Tony Walker, spokesman for the Rail Future group in the North East, said he thought Sir Richard is exactly what the line needs.
He added: “From a personal view I think we would be very pleased and relieved if he were to throw his hat in the ring.
“He has shown himself in previous bids to be ambitious and entrepreneurial and appears willing to push the boat out when it comes to investing in a service.
“The East Coast needs imagination. It has been a very plodding line for too long.”
Sir Richard was in the North East to see how Virgin Money is performing just over a year after he took over the failed Northern Rock.
Speaking at the firm’s Gosforth headquarters, he praised the workforce in Newcastle, adding that he is still looking at the possibility of an RBS branch buy-out.
He said: “We have to see if RBS want to play with us on this, but we could do to RBS what we did with Northern Rock.
“But generally if we do expand it will increase jobs here. Coming into here reminds you how vibrant and exciting a company it is. The changes that have been made here have been incredibly positive.
“I don’t think the people here were nervous about Northern Rock disappearing, about Virgin Money taking over, it has gone really well and has been a fantastic first year.”