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BBC Transport Correspondent Simon Montague
The aim is to beat air transport
 real 28k

Monday, 6 March, 2000, 10:43 GMT
Virgin's 200mph East Coast vision
The East Coast line is based at King's Cross in London
The East Coast line is based at King's Cross in London
Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is planning a 5bn bid for one of the busiest rail routes in the UK, the East Coast main line.

Virgin wants to introduce European-style high-speed trains, capable of speeds of up to 205 miles per hour, on the London-to-Edinburgh route.

Richard Branson already operates two train franchises
Richard Branson already operates two train franchises
That would cut the journey time on that journey to just over three hours.

Virgin is bidding for the next 20-year licence to operate the line, which is being auctioned by the Strategic Rail Authority and begins in 2003.

Virgin TGVs

Sir Richard already owns two other rail franchises, the West Coast main line and the Cross-Country line.

The East Coast line has seen traffic rise 26% since 1996, to 16m customers.

It is currently operated by GNER, which is owned by shipping company Sea Containers.

Virgin said that its plans would allow rail companies to beat out competition from airlines on the domestic routes.

"To get all-around benefits to all the cities and counties that can be served by the East Coast main line, a new high-speed line with the fastest trains in Europe, is the only answer," Virgin said.

It plans to build a new track between Peterborough and Newcastle in order to operate French-style TGVs (trains grand vitesse) like the Eurostar London-to-Paris train on its route.

Virgin says it will cost 3.5bn to upgrade the track, and 1.8bn to purchase 60 TGV trains which would be built in Birmingham and would be fully operational by 2009.

Virgin already has plans to upgrade the trains on its West Coast main line by introducing tilting trains by 2003.

Virgin says its application is supported by the other East Coast train operators, Prism (which runs the West Anglia Great Northern), GB Railways (Anglia) and National Express (Midland Main Line).

The rail authority will announce its decision in September. The existing operator, GNER, is also bidding to retain its franchise.

Virgin has been criticised for its poor performance on the West Coast main line, which has suffered from delays in track upgrading.

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