Flagship rail line goes private

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The Independent Online
British Rail's flagship East Coast main line route between London and Scotland passed into private hands yesterday together with the Midland Main Line and the Gatwick Express.

The new services began as Labour published a survey showing that train delays had doubled on some lines as the rail network was split into service groups in the run-up to privatisation.

Bermuda-based transport company Sea Containers, which runs the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, yesterday took over the London to Scotland route. InterCity East Coast and bus company National Express started operating the other two lines - Midland Main Line and the profitable Gatwick Express, from Victoria in London to Gatwick airport.

Sea Containers, which also operates the cross-Channel Hoverspeed services, is pouring pounds 17m into its seven-year franchise on East Coast. It brings the number of franchises in private hands to five. South West Trains and Great Western started operating privately at the beginning of February.

A subsidiary of giant French conglomerate Generale des Eaux has won the Network SouthCentral franchise and is expected to start operating it at the end of May.

Bids have been invited for a further 13 lines - meaning that 80 per cent of the 25 franchises are either in private hands or have reached the bidding stage.

Meanwhile, a Labour Party survey showed that the worst deterioration in punctuality was on the West Coast Main Line from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

Prior to being handed over to Railtrack from British Rail in 1994/5, only one in 10 trains was more than 10 minutes late. In 1995/6 it had doubled to almost one in five.

The survey also showed a deterioration on the East Coast route out of King's Cross in London to Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh - 86 per cent of trains arrived on time last year, compared with 90 per cent in 1994/5.

Labour accused the Government of pressing recklessly ahead, ignoring the wishes of travellers. Shadow transport spokesman, Brian Wilson, said ministers were creating a fragmented railway, which he claimed was "bad news for passengers and taxpayers".

He added: "While the electorate cannot stop them at this stage, it should be perfectly clear to the Tories that rail privatisation is one of the key issues on which they will be harshly punished.

"This is a scorched earth policy which they are obsessed with pushing through before a general election."

Mr Wilson said that the evidence of declining punctuality standards was not surprising.