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Are the regions being

The government is rethinking the viability of regional Eurostar services from the north of Britain.

This week saw the start of yet another favourite Government exercise - a review of a review. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is to seek consultants to independently study the viability of regional Eurostar services - having already commissioned a somewhat-less- than-independent review by Eurostar's management consortium Inter Capital and Regional Rail last June.

The ICRR consortium - which is made up of British Airways, National Express, French Railways and Belgian Railways - concluded in November that a regional service would not be financially viable without substantial Government cash. Instead, it proposed to run services from Heathrow Airport, Kensington Olympia and Watford.

But last week, the House of Commons Transport Sub Committee told Prescott that Eurostar services from Glasgow on the East Coast Main Line and Manchester on the West Coast Main Line had been a condition of the Channel Tunnel Rail Act. It argued that the regions would be 'cheated' unless inter-continental services from the north were introduced (NCE last week).

The fact that the Government is commissioning a second appraisal must be seen as an admission of its failure to consider properly the implications of regional services, and perhaps a reflection of Prescott's low regard for ICRR's main rival - Virgin Rail.

Virgin bid against ICRR to operate Eurostar services following the Government's rescue package for London & Continental Railways and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, but lost even though ICRR's tender made no provision for regional services.

In its submission to Prescott, Virgin claimed it could operate daily services from Glasgow and Edinburgh, two trains a day from Manchester and one from Birmingham without extra Government funding. It believes that a three and a half hour trip from Watford to Paris would be popular with business passengers, while the longer journeys from the North would challenge the leisure market, traditionally filled by long distance coaches.

Virgin claimed it would meet the cost of running the services and maintaining rolling stock, and would make franchise payments to LCR. It also promised to pay a fixed sum up front for regional services to ensure that LCR is no worse off, even if passenger numbers are not as high as expected.

Anyone who has travelled from London to Manchester by rail will know that Virgin's track record is far from good - indeed Prescott himself has singled out its dismal punctuality record on more than one occasion.

But with £180M of taxpayers' money already spent on seven specialised, currently stationary, regional Eurostar trains plus £140M invested in the infrastructure, the Virgin plan should be taken seriously by the review.

Even if it turns out to be an offer too good to be true, it might at the very least put pressure on ICRR to stow away what the sub committee described as its 'obvious interest' in services from Heathrow Airport, and reconsider the wider ranging benefits of services north of Watford.

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