Rail firms championed by Government

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S privatised railways have received ringing support from the Department of Trade and Industry in a bid to help train operators win millions of pounds of business abroad.

Despite warnings from Transport Secretary John Prescott that rail companies must cut delays and cancellations, the DTI has claimed in an official brochure that on Britain's railways "the customer is king". The brochure, published in conjunction with the Foreign Office, backs rail privatisation and says that "the arrival of competition has produced a surge of talent and innovation".

The brochure, aimed at promoting British railway expertise abroad, comes in sharp contrast to the remarks of Mr Prescott at last year's Labour conference, when he branded the privatised railways "a nat-ional disgrace" and threatened to return control of the worst performers to the National Railways Board.

In February, figures showed punctuality was getting worse and ministers said passengers were getting "a poor service" from Britain's 25 train operators. The creation of a new Strategic Rail Authority earlier this year means operators risk losing government subsidies if performance does not improve.

The DTI move comes as British operators seek to enter valuable markets abroad. In Australia, the state of Victoria is privatising its railway and several UK rail firms are in the running. Recent trade delegations from New Zealand, China and Australia have sought advice from UK firms on how to im-prove their own railway sectors.

The document, "The Power of Rail", says privatisation "has transformed the attitudes of railway executives and engineers. Britain's railway companies now combine their traditional expertise with a powerful business sense. A competitive home market distinguishes Britain's railways from most other countries."

The brochure also says that Britain has experienced a 14 per cent increase in passenger volume over the past four years and a 27 per cent increase in freight volumes. "pounds 1.2 billion was invested in upgrading track and infrastructure in 1997 alone. Another pounds 15 billion is committed to mainline and metro by 2002," it says.

It fails to report that railway research groups, such as Transport 2000, have been calling for years for more investment in improving track and signalling.

The railway industry has welcomed the document as helpful in its search for new markets.