Branson wants to run line "for free"

Sir Richard Branson today 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 that FirstGroup's bid will lead to "almost certain bankruptcy", made a last-ditch appeal to the Government to delay signing the 13-year contract tomorrow (Tuesday).

He 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.

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 and Liverpool Riverside MP, wrote to Transport Secretary Justine Greening asking her to hold off signing the final contract, saying that "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.

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 that this crucial decision is taken with all the facts correctly assessed and understood.

– Sir Richard Branson writing in the Sunday Telegraph

Sir Richard accepted that he has a "vested interest" but added: "City analysts, politicians, media commentators and - most importantly - our many loyal customers have seized on this decision as 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% on average.