`Deerstalker express' is saved

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The "deerstalker express", the sleeper train linking London with Fort William in the Highlands, which has been under threat for the past year, is to be permanently reprieved.

The new rail franchising director, Roger Salmon who announced last December that the service would not be subsidised, has been forced to retreat in the face of a court judgement and intense political pressure. Today, he will announce the passenger service requirement - the level of service which he is prepared to subsidise - for five of the operators being prepared for privatisation: East Coast Main Line, Scotrail, Midland Main Line, Gatwick Express and Network South Central.

He will say that the six nights a week service will be retained. However, it will have just two coaches because it will be run as part of the London/Inverness/Aberdeen sleeper. It will be disconnected at Edinburgh and will arrive two hours later, at 10.30 am, at Fort William.

Mr Salmon is prepared to put in pounds 700,000 per year to subsidise the service, which is only enough to pay for two carriages attached to the other train. The West Highland service was omitted from the draft passenger service requirement for Scotrail because Mr Salmon argued that it lost around pounds 2.5m a year which could not be justified for around 14,600 passengers. Mr Salmon's retreat is a triumph for Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland who been lobbying strongly for the service.