NICOLA Sturgeon should call for Stagecoach to be stripped of its East Coast Main Line rail franchise and banned from ever bidding for a rail contract in Scotland again, a former UK transport secretary has said.

Ex Labour minister Andrew Adonis said he was “astonished” at the First Minister’s silence over the troubled London to Edinburgh line.

He said a “golden opportunity” had been missed to make the case for a Scottish-English state-run company to take over the vital transport connection, but instead the Scottish Government had gone “AWOL”.

Loading article content

It comes as UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling indicated Perth-based Stagecoach would only continue running the line for "a small number of months and no more" after it “got its sums wrong” and racked up huge cost overruns.

Lord Adonis said Stagecoach and Virgin Trains – who run the franchise as a joint venture – were walking away with £2 billion-worth of commitments to the taxpayer.

He slammed the decision to extend Virgin’s contract for the West Coast Main Line, which it also runs with Stagecoach, as well as allowing the companies to bid on future franchises.

The former Labour minister said Ms Sturgeon’s silence was “deafening”, adding: “And I hope it’s nothing to do with the fact that Brian Souter [Stagecoach’s founder and chair] has in the past been a close ally.”

He told The Herald: “Scotland has potentially paid a very heavy price for Chris Grayling’s deal to bail out the East Coast line, and the Scottish Government should have been protesting very loudly and very publicly. They have certainly not been protesting publicly.”

Lord Adonis said Ms Sturgeon should have called for a public company to be set up in which the Scottish Government has a share.

He added: “This was a golden opportunity for her to make the case for a Scottish-English state company to run the most important transport connection between Scotland and England, and improve it in the process. And the Scottish Government has basically gone AWOL.”

Lord Adonis was UK education minister before becoming Transport Secretary in 2009, under Gordon Brown.

He earlier told the BBC Ms Sturgeon should be quizzed over “whether she thinks this contract should now, today, be taken away from Stagecoach – and Stagecoach should be penalised and banned from bidding for all future contracts in respect of rail business in Scotland.”

Mr Grayling told MPs Stagecoach could either continue operating the franchise on a short-term, not-for-profit basis, or the East Coast Main Line could be brought back under public control. But he said there was “no question of a bailout”, with Stagecoach facing losses of £200 million.

It marks the second time the East Coast franchise has collapsed, after National Express ran out of money in 2009.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf insisted the Scottish Government had made clear its preference for “public sector operators to be given a fair chance to operate our railways”.

He added: “Previous UK administrations – including when Lord Adonis was in Government – have repeatedly denied the Scottish Government the powers to allow a public sector body to bid for rail franchises.

“Only now, after repeated efforts, do we have powers to enable future contracts in Scotland to be let to the public sector and we are working to enable a public sector bid for Scotland’s railways in the future.

“The UK Government has the contractual relationships with East Coast Rail’s operators and they should be held to account for the current situation. Our priority is to ensure continuity of services for travellers. The UK Government should learn from their experiences and maintain the East Coast line in public ownership.”

A Stagecoach spokesman said: "We’ve neither walked away from the East Coast franchise nor have we received or asked for any special treatment.

“We have operated trains on behalf of the government for the past 21 years, meeting in full our contractual commitments and delivering a better railway for customers and the country, including on the West Coast franchise.

"The government has made clear that, as a professional, high quality rail operator with a strong track-record, there is no basis, legal or otherwise, on which we should be precluded from bidding for rail franchises."