Commentary: Lord Prior lays it on the line

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Lord Prior, the chairman of GEC, warned the Commons transport committee yesterday that unless British Rail were able to order some new trains in the near future 'there will be no rolling stock industry in this country in three years' time'.

Roger Freeman, the minister for public transport, is anxious to allay fears about a hiatus in the industry. In fact, BR has virtually no rolling stock on order and the three manufacturers - ABB, Metro-Cammell, which is part of GEC Alsthom, and Hunslet - are resigned to having gaps in their order books.

Yesterday's proposals will do little to allay their fears. Mr Freeman outlined four sources of hope. First, in the Autumn Statement, BR had been allowed to lease pounds 150m worth of rolling stock and Mr Freeman said they must place that order by Easter. However, it represents only a few weeks' production for one of the lines. Secondly, he said BR would still have the right to procure trains for several years as it would continue to run many services, but offered BR no extra money for such investment.

Thirdly, he is floating the idea of creating up to five companies which would take over BR's rolling stock. Initially they would be owned by BR but, after Royal Assent for the Bill in the autumn, they would be sold to the private sector.

Finally, he suggested that manufacturers take the risk themselves by financing the construction of trains and leasing them to BR. Clearly, it does not take Lord Prior to point out that no manufacturer would do so without a definite order from BR, and there is little that will prevent his dire prediction coming true.