By Ray Fleming “Insane” said Richard Branson yesterday about the British government's decision to take the West Coast railway franchise away from his company Virgin and give it to First Group instead. As Mr Branson has conceded Virgin's service is not perfect but in an independent poll 91 per cent of its passengers expressed satisfaction with it. By contrast First Group's Great Western franchise is generally regarded as one of the UK's worst for crowded trains and stations.

So why has First Group been awarded the West Coast by the government? The answer is simple: by making promises of attractive improvements which cannot be tested until they are delivered and by offering the Treasury more for the franchise than Richard Branson believes can be found without significant cuts in services that he is not prepared to introduce to a service whose passenger numbers he has doubled in ten years. Perhaps Tim O'Toole, the American boss of First Group inadvertently got near to the truth when he said on a BBC Radio 4 Today interview yesterday that his company intends to “exploit” the West Coast line.

U-turns are not easily found on railway tracks but the government may soon be looking for one as opposition to this unjustifiable decision increases. Surely Mr Branson, an innovative British businessman if ever there was one, deserves better treatment than this from the government?

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