Outlook: Railtrack

JOHN PRESCOTT, the Deputy Prime Minister, came chugging into Blackpool itching to give the train operators a working over, and certain of being cheered to the echo. His mood was hardly helped by the unfortunate detour half the Cabinet took on their way up to the Labour conference. Virgin and Railtrack are still arguing over whose fault it was. In any case, by the time he'd finished, the old bruiser had the privatised railway companies pinned to the wall as tightly as any stroppy passenger in his days as a steward on the ocean liners.

On the way up, the Prescott Express had already stopped off at the Rail Regulator's office, where John Swift was told his season ticket was not being renewed this November. Yesterday it was the turn of the franchising director, the saintly John O'Brien, who was thanked for his sterling efforts and then told to find alternative employment from next spring.

In their place will be something called the Strategic Rail Authority. But first, Mr Prescott has to turn his ideas into legislation, which may take rather longer than the anti-rail privatisation lobby would like. In the meantime, the old British Railways Board is being brought out of retirement to act as a shadow strategic rail authority.

Beyond the huff and the puff, it is not clear that Mr Prescott can do much, other than fine the franchisees more promptly for their failings and threaten not to renew the franchises, which in some cases last 15 years. Meanwhile there are tiresome matters like commercial contracts and price regimes which Labour is bound to honour.

John says he is no virgin (ho, ho) when it comes to the railways and invites those companies who do not like the heat to hand in the keys and get off the footplate. But for all his machismo, he may find it harder to bring in new partners than he thinks.

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