THE East Coast rail line must be re-privatised because it is the “worst” in the country, the rail minister told MPs today (Wedensday, April 24).

Simon Burns denied Labour allegations that the controversial decision was “political or ideological” – to end state ownership before the next general election, in 2015.

Instead, Mr Burns pointed to rail performance figures, which showed just 82.8 per cent of East Coast trains arrived on time in the year to March – down from 90.6 per cent in 2011-12.

And he said: “In difficult circumstances, the East Coast has performed reasonably well in providing a continuity of service.

“But I think the problem is that it is plateauing. What it needs is an infusion of innovation and a stimulus, which I believe only the private sector can do.

“If you look at the latest monthly figures for reliability and punctuality, they are the worst of the 19 rail franchises.”

Supporters of public ownership argue that delays are caused by track problems – the responsibility of Network Rail, rather than state-run Directly Operated Railways (DOR).

Lucy Powell, a Labour backbencher, alleged: “This is a political decision. It is the West Coast main line that has been plateauing for some time now.”

But Mr Burns insisted: “This is not ideological. It’s what is in the best interests of taxpayers and, above all, of passengers.”

DOR took over the East Coast line after the fiasco that saw National Express pull out of its contract, in 2009. Three years earlier, GNER also handed back the keys.

Virgin, FirstGroup and a consortia led by SNCF, France’s state-owned rail company, are expected to compete for the franchise, to start in February 2015.

Last week, a report by the Office of the Rail Regulator (ORR) found the East Coast route makes the second highest payment into government coffers.

Uniquely, it requires virtually no overall subsidy, even taking track improvements into account – blowing apart the case for re-privatisation, Labour claimed.

But Mr Burns, giving evidence to the all-party transport select committee said he “did not accept the premise” of the ORR’s study.

The minister also hinted he was going cold on a government pledge to explore devolving powers to influence fares and routes on local rail services across the North.

Transport authorities have put together a joint proposal, to take effect when the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises are merged and re-let, in 2016.

The two franchises serve Darlington, Durham City, Bishop Auckland, Chester-le-Street, Middlesbrough, Stockton, Hartlepool, Redcar, Sunderland and Northallerton.

Quizzed yesterday, Mr Burns was unable to give any indication of when a decision would be made, insisting that would be “premature”.

He said: “We are not against devolution, but any proposal that comes forward has to be looked at very carefully. No decisions have been taken.”