The East Coast mainline has returned �1bn to the Treasury since being publicly owned

Unions bemoan likely French win of East Coast rail franchise

Transport unions have reacted angrily to reports that the UK's only government-run rail line is to be taken over by a state-owned French consortium.

The UK government has been anxious to return the London to Scotland East Coast main line to the private sector ever since it was taken over from National Express by the Department for Transport in 2009.

But now it is likely that this week's announcement of a new private franchise will see the line being run by joint bidders Eurostar and French transport company Keolis, which is 70 per cent owned by state-run French rail company SNCF from next year.

Opponents of the move to re-privatise the East Coast line have pointed out that the public-sector-run company has made big returns to the Treasury during its tenure and Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT transport union, said re-privatising the line was "ludicrous" and a "national disgrace".

He added: "This is pure industrial vandalism and the strong rumour that the French-state operator is in pole position to mop up this vital, strategic north/south route says it all. This government is happy to have state ownership of our railways as long as it isn't by the British state, in the interests of the British people."

Manuel Cortes, leader of the TSSA transport union, said: "This has got nothing to do with improving services but everything to do with sheer political spite. Here we have the best-value franchise, which has returned £1bn to the taxpayer over the past five years, being sold overseas because it is a public sector success story.

"Rather than allow that to continue, the Tories would rather see it in French hands. They don't want the voters having the chance to keep it in the public sector by voting Labour in May."

The two other bidders – FirstGroup and a joint venture between Virgin Trains and transport company Stagecoach – look set to miss out as market speculation of a French win saw First Group’s value fall by £150m, while Stagecoach saw £33 wiped off its shares.

Easington Labour MP Grahame Morris said the decision to re-privatise the East Coast line was "right-wing Tory dogma being put ahead of the best interests of passengers" and Edinburgh East Labour MP Sheila Gilmour and the RMT and TSSA unions were also highly critical of the expected decision.

Morris said: "This public-run rail franchise has generated over a billion pounds for the Treasury. If this is what a publicly-run train-operating franchise can deliver, at a time when every penny counts, we should be looking at ways to bring privately run railways back into public ownership not the other way round.

"This is right wing Tory dogma being put ahead of the best interests of the service, consideration for passengers and the public finances. The public-run East Coast main line franchise has consistently been the best-performing franchise when it comes to passenger and staff satisfaction, fares and profitability."

Gilmore said: "Passengers recognise the improvements to services that East Coast have made under public ownership over the last few years. They also appreciate that, at present, all profits are retained for the benefit of British passengers and taxpayers.

"But despite calls from Labour for these arrangements to continue in the long-term, today we hear that East Coast is set to be privatised just before the next general election."

She added: "Ironically if the contract is awarded to Keolis – which is largely owned by the French government – ticket revenue may well be reinvested in improved services. Unfortunately these will be services between places like Paris and Lyon or Marseille and Monaco, rather than Edinburgh and London.

"A future Labour government would allow a public sector operator to bid for rail contracts, so that passengers and taxpayers always get value for money."

Before National Express pulled out of the franchise, a previous private operator – GNER – also ceased running the East Coast line after its parent company Sea Containers got into financial difficulties.

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