Leading Article: A simple test: will our trains start to run on time?

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The Independent Culture
IT MAY not be the expected route, but the arranged marriage between Richard Branson's Virgin Trains and Brian Souter's Stagecoach bus company provides the first opportunity since privatisation for the integrated transport network so beloved of transport experts. Scrapping plans for a pounds 250m flotation, Mr Branson has instead secured from Stagecoach a pounds 138 million share purchase and an extra pounds 20 million to pay off debts - amounting to 49 per cent of Virgin Trains. The marriage of the flamboyant Mr Branson and the hard-edged Mr Souter is one of circumstance, and it is impossible at this stage to tell whether it is made in heaven or hell.

Mr Branson has spoken of the "synergistic benefits" of the arrangement. If plans to integrate Stagecoach's buses in the Midlands, North-west and Scotland with Virgin's trains live up to the two companies' hype then it will be a good thing. But there are serious doubts - based on past performance - about their ability to deliver what they promise.

When the last government privatised the railways it argued that only the private sector could follow Mussolini in making the trains run on time. More than that, a nationalised British Rail would always be low on any list of public spending priorities, however appalling its performance and however obvious its need for greater investment. Money on the scale needed could come only from the private sector. Using a subsidy to attract buyers was one thing; but after a few years, any subsidy would be whittled away and converted into a payment into the Treasury. Britain would have a modern, efficient, well resourced and private railway system.

It is still too soon to tell whether this is just a free marketeer's fantasy, or a credible way to run a transport system. Privatisation certainly has its more absurd side, such as rival companies operating on the same line which go out of their way not to co-operate on schedules or ticketing. And Virgin Trains has been one of the poorest performers. A year ago only 78 per cent of its trains were punctual (although that has now improved to 90 per cent). Everyone has their own privatisation horror story. But in truth many of these are simply rail horror stories, which might have been different but would not have been better under a state-run railway.

Virgin Rail's franchises cover the vital west coast main line between London and Scotland and the cross-country route between Penzance and Aberdeen. Earlier this month it won regulatory approval for a pounds 2.1bn investment on the west coast line and it is trying to secure pounds 1bn to run "tilting trains" which should cut the London Glasgow journey time from four hours 54 minutes to three hours 49 minutes. The subsidy of pounds 224.4m which Virgin rail receives today has to be turned into a payment to the Treasury of pounds 230.3m by the time the franchise runs out in the year 2012 - a pretty onerous task, and one that is dependent on decent performance.

If Virgin Trains fail to deliver, then it will not just be Mr Branson and Mr Souter who are in trouble. The Government, even if it wanted to, does not have the money for a major rescue of the railways - let alone for renationalisation. The rail franchising director, John O'Brien, is expected to insist on additional investment and passenger facilities before approving the merger, and that is all to the good.

The success of privatisation will be judged pretty straightforwardly. Are there enough trains? Do they run on time? Are they comfortable? Are they competitive? A positive answer to all of these questions is a pre- requisite to any of the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for reducing car traffic. The Labour Party opposed privatisation but is now stuck with it, so when Mr Prescott publishes his transport White Paper next month he will be as anxious as any Conservative for the experiment to succeed.