PM urged to intervene in rail deal

Prime Minister David Cameron must intervene in the row over the new West Coast Mainline contract to "get some sense" into the Department for Transport over the controversial deal, Sir Richard Branson has urged.

The Virgin boss has offered to effectively run the route for free to allow the decision awarding the 13-year franchise to FirstGroup to be re-examined.

It comes as Labour urged Transport Secretary Justine Greening not to sign off the contract until MPs have been able to scrutinise it in detail.

More than 100,000 members of the public have also signed an online petition against the decision, in a campaign supported by double Olympic champion Mo Farah, Apprentice star Lord Sugar and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Sir Richard, who has claimed that FirstGroup's bid will lead to "almost certain bankruptcy", said Virgin Trains and Stagecoach would operate the joint venture on a not-for-profit basis or donate profits to charity if the franchise needed to be extended beyond December for a few months to allow Parliament to investigate the decision.

"I think that the person that can really intervene to try to get some sense into the Department for Transport is the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister is currently on holiday, the Chancellor is on holiday and we would like things delayed by a month or so," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme."If, as a result of that, it means that the handover is delayed we would obviously be very happy to run it on a not-for-profit basis."

But the DfT dismissed Sir Richard's offer to run the service on a not-for-profit basis to allow the deal to be re-examined, insisting it would go ahead with the contract. A spokesman said: "We note the offer that one of the bidders appears to have made via the Press. However, the winning bidder was decided by a fair and established process and no reason has been advanced to convince DfT not to sign the agreement."

FirstGroup insisted the bidding process was fair and deliverable. Chief executive Tim O'Toole said: "We are pleased that the DfT has reiterated that our winning bid was selected by a fair, rigorous process that scrutinised best value and deliverability and that they concluded that no reason has been advanced to convince the DfT not to sign the agreement.

"Our bid is deliverable and it provides the best deal for taxpayers, for passengers and for staff on the West Coast main line. We are one of the country's most experienced rail operators and have a good track record.

"We can understand why Virgin are disappointed to have lost, but the fact is that, under its stewardship, the West Coast main line has experienced the poorest punctuality and reliability of any route in the country whilst our franchises are all above 90%. Virgin has also had higher levels of passenger complaints filed against it than all four of First's franchises put together."