Letter: Road and rail

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The Independent Culture
Letter: Road and rail

Sir: The Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are reported to be looking for more substance and less spin. They should begin with the railways.

Traditionally our railways, even before the state system was imposed in 1948, were (though fleeced by the Treasury in two world wars and during privatisation) regarded as a public service. Now Railtrack and the operating companies have as their main concerns their shareholders.

Railtrack now routinely presents repair and maintenance as though it were an investment; the operators, under a feeble system of regulation and franchising, increasingly ignore the interests of travellers as Treasury subsidies diminish; and all freight operators, despite their competent performance, wait in vain for Railtrack to provide adequate trackage; they cannot build their own dedicated main lines as long as the split between operations and ownership of infrastructure persists.

Meanwhile, the factions in John Prescott's super-ministry lack coherent thought. A new "strategic" rail authority will be one more layer of bureaucracy incapable of correcting inequities between different modes of inland transport.

Yet the nation needs a decent railway system. Hypothecation of taxes upon transport - at last permitted by the Treasury - should be directed in part to buying back for the public a controlling interest in the railways as part of a comprehensive policy of public enterprise, both passenger and freight.

Professor GEORGE HUXLEY

Church Enstone, Oxfordshire

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