ANGRY MPs and passengers today condemned a "scandalous" Government decision to extend GNER's franchise by only two years.

Transport Secretary Stephen Byers went against the Strategic Rail Authority's recommendations for either GNER or Virgin or GNER to be awarded a 20-year deal to run services on the flagship East Coast line.

He said he "regretted" that the process to negotiate a 20-year franchise had not been successful, claiming that since the Hatfield rail crash it had become clear that more work needed to be done to develop an infrastructure.

Rail passenger watchdogs today told of their disappointment at the decision.

"Although this announcement has ended months of uncertainty for passengers on the East Coast Mainline, it has postponed for at least another two years the major investment needed to tackle capacity problems on this arterial route," said Rail Passengers Council chairman Stewart Francis.

"We are disappointed that the franchise has not been awarded for a much longer period, which would have created greater stability and encouraged the franchisee to invest in longer term projects."

Ryedale's Tory MP, John Greenway branded the decision "scandalous," saying a 20-year franchise had been desperately needed to give passengers a better service.

"It has put the whole future of this project into the sidings for at least two years. There will be huge anger in York."

York MP Hugh Bayley was this afternoon leading a delegation of MPs whose constituencies are served by the line to see Mr Byers.

Mr Bayley said: "I am unhappy and concerned about the announcement. We need a long- term decision to finance a major investment to upgrade the line."

Selby Labour MP John Grogan blamed the announcement on uncertainty over whether Railtrack would meet its share of the cost of upgrading the East Coast Mainline, and suggested

the answer was to re-nationalise Railtrack.

Councillor Ann Reid, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Executive Member for Transport on City of York Council, said hundreds of GNER staff in York would remain in limbo for a further two-year period, and spoke of her concern that future development of the franchise would be jeopardised.

A GNER spokesman said it was not the 20-year franchise it had been hoping for. "We will now have to sit down with the Government and discuss the passenger benefits we can achieve between now and 2005."

Virgin Trains are to meet with the Strategic Rail Authority to discuss the franchise decision.

"We are disappointed that there has not been a clear commitment to the replacement plans of either bidder," said a spokesperson.

Updated: 11:15 Thursday, July 19, 2001