EUROPEAN regulators last night gave the go-ahead for a new rail franchise linking Liverpool with the North East.
The ruling clears the way for the Trans-Pennine Express route that will link Liverpool with Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle when it begins on February 1 next year.
Train companies First Group and the French firm of Keolis have formed a joint venture to run the route. The French outfit is also bidding to operate the proposed Merseytram system.
They are investing £260m on the franchise, including a fleet of 50 new 100mph intercity trains which will come into service by 2006 and some new depots to maintain them.
The new trains will cut the journey time for the trip but it is not yet clear by how much.
It is the first contract to be awarded in a major shake-up of rail services across the North of England
The Trans-Pennine Express route has been formed from two franchises currently operated by Arriva Trains Northern and First Group.
The remainder of the two current franchises will be known as the Northern Rail franchise, which First Group is also bidding for. Britain's Strategic Rail Authority granted the Trans-Pennine Express venture a contract to run the northern routes in July.
The contract will run for eight years with an option to extend it for another five years.
But because both rail companies are involved in other English rail franchises the European Commission investigated the new franchise.
Yesterday the Commission ruled that the "operation does not present any competition concerns."
First Group rail communications manager Robin Etherington said: "We are very pleased we have passed the hurdle and are looking forward to taking over the franchise in the New Year."
The new fleet of trains, which will be stored at Manchester and York, reach 100mph, up to 30mph faster than the ageing rolling stock which currently provide the service. They will be able to hold more passengers.
All 30 stations on the routes will be upgraded, providing better information, improved security and new toilets, as well as improved ticketing and waiting facilities. In total, 200 jobs are expected to be created across the route.
Last month, First Group reported better interim profits with turnover for the six months to September up from £1.07bn to £1.28bn and profits ahead from £55.8m to £56.8m.