The Government has confirmed one-third of direct train services between London and Cornwall are under threat as it finally unveiled details of the new Great Western rail franchise.
But the Department for Transport (DfT) has offered hope that all nine daily services from Paddington to Penzance could be retained after 11th-hour lobbying over proposed cuts that could leave the Duchy with just six trains to the capital.
The DfT also confirmed the existing franchise, run by First Great Western, would be extended by seven months – a delay that could leave taxpayers with a hefty bill.
In better news, ministers are also demanding that train firms wanting to run services throughout the South West will have to provide a new early morning service from Plymouth to London.
They also want to see how much the advent of a "Devon Metro" linking Exeter to surrounding towns would cost.
Cornwall MPs and the local authority were last night preparing to fight to retain the status quo.
Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, said: "We have everything to play for now. Six inter-city services from Penzance will be suggesting that Cornwall can become a branch line and have services cut to help fund expensive upgrades and electrification almost everywhere else. This would be bad news for business, passengers and the tourist industry."
The DfT yesterday issued its invitation to tender, which sets out what the Government expects from the four shortlisted bidders wanting to take control of the 15-year franchise from July. The deal was originally slated to start three months earlier.
Rail Minister Theresa Villiers explained Cornwall would continue to get nine "journey opportunities" from London, plus the much-cherished sleeper. But only six are guaranteed direct or "through" services, with the remaining three requiring passengers to change in Devon.
After last week's outrage as details leaked, the DfT has offered a concession. It has asked the bidders to provide costs for nine direct services, and will choose between the two alternatives when bidders submit their plans. This is expected in October with a new operator appointed in March.
Train firms will also be required to provide costs for a new service every 30 minutes from Penzance to Plymouth or Exeter – which Cornwall Council has pressed for as a replacement for losing the three direct trains.
Ms Villiers said: "The coalition Government appreciates the importance of this issue for Cornwall. Rail franchising always involves difficult decisions, but we have made efforts to respond to the concerns expressed by local MPs."
George Eustice, Tory MP for Camborne and Redruth, met the minister with Mr George and Dan Rogerson, Lib Dem MP for North Cornwall, last week in Westminster.
Mr Eustice said: "This is a very positive step. The key task now is to demonstrate that rising passenger numbers in Cornwall justify an improved service in the future."
Mr Rogerson added: "The DfT have clearly recognised the seriousness of this issue, but I am disappointed that they haven't insisted on nine through trains at this stage."
If the Penzance services were axed, the London trains would stop at Plymouth – meaning Devon would be unaffected.
The tender document, which will see "broadly the same number of trains" deployed, also requires bidders to put on an extra train from Plymouth to arrive in the capital before 10am so businesspeople can get there and back in a day.
Train companies are also expected to provide costs for:
A Devon Metro for services into Exeter from Exmouth, Barnstaple, Newton Abbot and Paignton.
An additional one train per hour service on the Riviera line from Newton Abbot to Paignton in Devon.
Re-opening of the rail line from Bere Alston to Tavistock in Devon.
Popular local services added since the last franchise in 2006 – notably Truro to Falmouth and Par to Newquay – have now been written into the contract.
The DfT confirmed the existing franchise will run for longer than expected, but has yet to confirm if First will continue running the line in the interim – even though there appears no other option.