THE Government's most senior rail adviser has re-ignited the East Coast Main Line franchise controversy by revealing that Ministers repeatedly ignored his recommendation that GNER should be given a 20-year deal.

Sir Alistair Morton, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, said he made

his mind up last December that GNER's bid should be preferred to Virgin -

and it "never changed once".

He told a Commons select committee hearing he spent the next seven

months "badgering" transport ministers to let him press ahead with the GNER bid.

But he said his pleas were ignored by the Department of Transport - who did

not explain why they were delaying.

In July, it was finally announced that nether Virgin or GNER would get a 20-year franchise.

Instead, the decision was deferred for two years and GNER got an extension of its existing agreement until 2005.

At a hearing last night, members of the Transport Select Committee asked

Sir Alistair if he had been surprised by the decision.

He replied: "I was very surprised."

At the time, Transport Secretary Stephen Byers said he could not make a

decision until details of the £2.6 billion upgrade of the line had been finalised.

But the move was widely criticised - with North Yorkshire MPs claiming it

was "absolutely scandalous" and left passengers in limbo for a further

two years.

After the hearing, Vale of York MP Anne McIntosh said Sir Alistair's evidence had been damning.

"We now have hard evidence from a highly- respected transport adviser - who is probably the most senior person the Government has - that he wanted the franchise to go to GNER.

"Why did the Secretary of State not take his advice and not even consult

him when he was making his decision?"

Updated: 10:50 Thursday, October 18, 2001