Sir Richard Branson has offered to run the West Coast Main Line for free to allow parliament more time to examine their decision to award the franchise to rival FirstGroup.

The entrepreneur has claimed that his rival's bid will lead to FirstGroup's "almost certain bankruptcy" and made a last-ditch appeal to the government to delay signing the 13-year contract, expected to take place on Tuesday.

He said Virgin Trains and Stagecoach would operate the joint venture on a not-for-profit basis or donate profits to charity if the franchise needed to be extended beyond December to allow parliament to investigate the decision.

FirstGroup claims it will deliver better value for taxpayers. It plans major improvements to the InterCity West Coast franchise to enhance the customer experience, including improved wifi and catering, as well as additional services and more seats and reducing standard anytime fares by 15% on average.

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Richard Branson has offered to allow parliament more time to consider their decision and in the meantime he will run the train line on a not-for-profit basis

More than 100,000 members of the public have signed an online petition against the "outrageous" decision, in a campaign supported by double Olympic champion Mo Farah, Apprentice star Lord Sugar and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. The e-petition on the government's website states:

"The West Coast Mainline's current value is thanks to millions of pounds of investment and commitment from Virgin Trains - they're not perfect, none are - but they have delivered a reliable service for 15 years and turned the line around.

"FirstGroup consistently rate amongst the worst of the train operators in passenger satisfaction surveys - they should show improvements in their existing services before being able to bid on more.

"The government should look at more than the highest bidder - look what happened with G4S at London 2012.

"I urge the government to reconsider this decision or to seek public opinion in these franchise bids."

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Branson thanks Ross McKillop, who started the petition, writing: "All of us at Virgin Trains are overwhelmed and thank you. Let us hope that sense prevails and your views are acted on quickly."

Sir Richard is also pressing for an independent audit of the Department for Transport's decision over the £10 billion deal.

His plea comes after Louise Ellman, the chairman of the House of Commons Transport Committee, wrote to Transport Secretary Justine Greening asking her to hold off signing the final contract, saying that "important issues" had been raised.


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We would happily run extended franchise on not-for-profit basis while independent audit is completed

In an opinion piece for the Sunday Telegraph Sir Richard said: "It is far better for MPs to have the chance to debate the issues, and question ministers on the detail before the decision is finalised.

"To assist in this process, there should be an independent audit of the DfT decision to ensure it has been based on correct criteria and reliable forecasting of customer numbers, revenue and payments to Government.

"We must ensure that this crucial decision is taken with all the facts correctly assessed and understood."

Sir Richard accepted that he has a "vested interest" but added: "City analysts, politicians, media commentators and - most importantly - our many loyal customers have seized on this decision as outrageous, unjust and simply wrong."

Virgin has operated the West Coast line since 1997 and has more than doubled annual passenger numbers over 15 years.

A DfT spokesman indicated that the agreement was set to be signed on Tuesday despite Sir Richard's offer.

He said: "We note the offer that one of the bidders appears to have made via the press.

"However, the winning bidder was decided by a fair and established process and no reason has been advanced to convince DfT not to sign the agreement."