Rivals grilled over plans for rail line

Bosses of four rival companies battling to run the East Coast rail service yesterday faced a grilling from regional figureheads.

Bosses of four rival companies battling to run the East Coast rail service yesterday faced a grilling from regional figureheads.

A panel of political and business leaders gathered to question the four bidders for the East Coast rail franchise - which links the North-East with London and Scotland - over their intentions for the route.

The meeting at Gateshead's Civic Centre was arranged and chaired by Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland amid fears a new operator could drop plans to upgrade stations, downgrade catering facilities and services could be cut.

The hearing by the East Coast Rail Forum was also an opportunity to emphasise the importance of the line to the region to the prospective operators.

The competitors - Arriva Trains, National Express Group, First Group and a partnership of Virgin, Stagecoach and GNER - are all bidding for the franchise which is being re-let after current operator GNER admitted it could not keep up with a £1.3bn payment promised to the Government.

And last night the meeting was hailed a success by Mr Clelland.

He said: "I thought it went very well. The important thing was that we wanted to impress upon the bidders the importance of the line to the North-East region.

"We hope to see the high standards we have become used to maintain and even improved upon."

While representatives could not give specific details of their bids, they were quizzed over frequency of service, staffing levels, catering and refurbishments to stations.

Mr Clelland, a member of the Commons transport committee, said: "There was nothing that particularly alarmed us, but we are keen to ensure that any cost-cutting measures will not jeopardise the levels of service we have become used to."

In the wake of yesterday's meeting the panel will now put together their reaction to the bids, and any recommendations in a letter which will be sent to the Secretary of State.

The four rival companies then have until June 6 to table their bids.

Mr Clelland said: "The bidders all seem to have thought deeply about the service they wish to provide.

"But we will be writing to the Secretary of State to ensure our views on what the North-East ought to be provided are known."

The meeting was also hailed a "valuable exercise" by Hilary Knox, the deputy director of the Association of North East Council.

She said: "The ECML Forum event has been a very valuable exercise, in which we have been able to put across the views, concerns and questions of a wide range of stakeholders, including members of the public, to the four bidding parties.

"The bidders have all agreed to carefully consider our aspirations for the route, our comments and concerns as they finalise their bids before submission to the Department of Transport."

Questions where also put to bidders by North-East Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham, TUC regional secretary Kevin Rowan, chairman of campaign group Railfuture North-East Martin Murphy and regional assembly deputy chief executive Malcolm Bowes.

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