TYCOON Sir Richard Branson has offered his company’s services free of charge as the battle over a major rail network intensifies.
The Virgin chief has offered to run the West Coast Main Line for free to allow Parliament time to scrutinise an “outrageous” decision to award the franchise to rival FirstGroup.
The entrepreneur, who has claimed FirstGroup’s bid will lead to “almost certain bankruptcy”, made a last-ditch appeal to the Government to delay signing the 13-year contract on Tuesday.
When the decision was announced earlier this month, Vernon Barker, managing director of FirstGroup’s UK rail division, said the new direct route would be “good news for Blackpool” and the company planned to up the number of services between the resort and London to five per day by 2016.
But Branson has now said Virgin Trains and Stagecoach would operate the joint venture on a not-for-profit basis or donate profits to charity if the service needed to be extended beyond December for a few months to allow Parliament to investigate the decision.
Sir Richard is also pressing for an independent audit of the Department for Transport’s decision over the £10bn deal.
His plea comes after Louise Ellman, the chairman of the House of Commons Transport Committee, wrote to Transport Secretary Justine Greening asking her to hold off signing the final contract, saying “important issues” had been raised.
And more than 100,000 members of the public have 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.
In an opinion piece for the Sunday Telegraph Sir Richard said: “It is far better for MPs to have the chance to debate the issues, and question ministers on the detail before the decision is finalised.
“To assist in this process, there should be an independent audit of the DfT decision to ensure it has been based on correct criteria and reliable forecasting of customer numbers, revenue and payments to Government.
“We must ensure this crucial decision is taken with all the facts correctly assessed and understood.”
Sir Richard accepted he has a “vested interest” but added that the decision to award the contract to FirstGroup was “outrageous, unjust and simply wrong”.
Virgin has operated the West Coast line since 1997 and has more than doubled annual passenger numbers over 15 years.
FirstGroup claims it will deliver better value for taxpayers. It plans major improvements to the InterCity West Coast franchise to enhance the customer experience, including improved wifi and catering, as well as additional services and more seats and reducing standard anytime fares by 15 per cent on average.
A DfT spokesman indicated that the agreement was set to be signed on Tuesday despite Sir Richard’s offer.
He added: “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.”