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Now National Express faces franchise ban.

Byline: JONATHANWALKER

Rail operator National Express should be stripped of its remaining franchises after abandoning the loss-making East Coast Main Line, MPs have demanded.

They rounded on the Edgbaston-based business after it announced it would not pour any more money into the route, forcing the Government to nationalise it.

In a scathing report today, the Commons Transport Committee said it was "unacceptable" for the business to walk away from a loss-making route but continue to operate two profitable services.

And they accused the business of "sharp practice" in using a legal instrument to try to hold on to its remaining routes.

National Express had agreed to pay pounds 1.4 billion for its seven-year East Coast franchise. But it announced earlier this month that it was defaulting on the agreement because the route, which runs from London to Edinburgh via Newcastle, was making a loss.

In theory, rail operators which default on one franchise should lose all of them, under arrangements introduced by the Government with the specific intention of preventing firms from clinging on to profitable routes.

However, this may not apply to National Express because instead of running the East Coast Main Line directly, it set up a separate business called NXEC Trains, created specifically to manage the franchise.

The use of a separate firm, known as a special purpose vehicle, means Na-tionaExpress may be allowed to keep its two other franchises, National Ex-presEast Anglia and c2c, which runs services in Greater London and Essex.

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has hinted he may use his powers to remove the franchises anyway, but National Express has warned it will resist any such moves.

Today's report, which follows a Commons inquiry into the whole rail franchising system, warns: "On 1 July, the Secretary of State indicated that the Government might invoke the crossdefault provision to revoke National Express' two other franchise contracts as well as the East Coast Main Line. It has subsequently emerged that the use of a 'special purpose vehicle' by National Express could prevent the Government from using the cross-default mechanism.

"We believe it is unacceptable that National Express may be able to cling on to its remaining franchises through the use of a 'special purpose vehicle'. The misuse of legal instruments, such as 'special purpose vehicles', to insulate parent companies from potential losses and legal problems as a result of the failure of subsidiaries is sharp practice."

The MPs claimed that the collapse of the East Coast Main Line franchise demonstrated the need for fundamental reform to the franchise system.

A National Express spokesperson said: "We are confident that the Secretary of State will not be permitted to execute cross-default contained in the franchise agreements for East Anglia or c2c."

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 27, 2009
Words:461
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