Outlook: Rail summit

RAIL SUMMITS come along these days more often than commuter trains. The station master presiding over yesterday's gathering of railway buffs was no less a figure than Tony Blair.

Flanked by the John Prescott Express and the Government's new Rail Enforcer, Sir Alastair Morton, the Prime Minister told the assembled train operators they were on trial. Mr Prescott, who spent most of his former life at sea, naturally opted for a nautical analogy. "If you don't shape up, you can ship out."

The paradox of rail privatisation is that while train travel is up - 1,000 extra services and 14 per cent more passengers - punctuality and reliability are down. Mr Blair has now offered the train operators a ticket to renew their franchises early if they can pass six tests designed to improve the passengers' lot. The former Eurotunnel chairman will be in charge of extracting those guarantees.

But all the parties know that the only true answer to the railways' malaise is more investment to end the vicious spiral whereby every 1 per cent increase in train frequency leads to a 2.5 per cent increase in delays.

The Fat Controller, Sir Bob Horton of Railtrack, is already spending pounds 17bn and stands ready to put up more but only if his shareholders are allowed to earn a decent return on it.

Since no one other than Railtrack has the will, credit rating or incentive to fund the required programme, Sir Bob looks to be in command of the footplate. But doubtless it will take several more rail summits for the politicians to arrive at the same destination.

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