The public should have a say in the battle between Virgin Trains and rival operators FirstGroup over the right to operate the West Coast Main Line, Labour MPs have said.
Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson received a boost in his battle to hang on to the franchise for services between London, Birmingham and Manchester, when he was backed by MPs duing a House of Commons debate.
They highlighted a petition signed by 170,000 people which urged the Department for Transport to reconsider its decision to hand the franchise to FirstGroup.
Virgin had run inter-city services on the West Coast Main Line since 1997, but the franchise is due to run out this year.
The firm submitted a bid for the new franchise which begins in December, but lost to FirstGroup. Sir Richard has launched a legal challenge and a high profile publicity campaign to try to overturn the decision.
The debate was led by backbench Labour MP Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) who said Ministers should listen to “the passengers who are actually using the rail system”.
She called for “an open and transparent process” for deciding franchises, adding: “We are basically being told by the Department, trust us, trust what we are telling you.”
But she came under fire from Shropshire MP Daniel Kawczynski (Con Shrewsbury & Atcham), who asked: “Is this not the Labour Party jumping on the bandwagon?”
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has warned that the franchise will be taken back into public management if the legal battles are not completed by December.
The Government already has its own rail operating company, called Directly Operated Railways Limited, which was created in 2009 to take responsibility for the East Coast Main Line after the franchise holder on that route backed out.
FirstGroup has said it will refurbish every train and cut the cost of a standard any-time fare by an average of 15 per cent. The firm is also planning to introduce a new “intermediate” class on services, part way between first class and standard class, allowing passengers to enjoy seats with more room and space to work on a laptop computer without needing to pay first class prices.