Fort William sleeper train set to be reprieved

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The sleeper train service linking London with Fort William looks set to be permanently reprieved after British Rail said it was postponing a decision on whether to appeal against the judgment which had halted its closure.

At a meeting yesterday, the British Railways Board decided to continue operating the train until 22 September and to delay a decision on an appeal to the House of Lords against the Scottish courts' refusal to let it to shut down the service.

More significantly, the board said it is waiting to see if the franchising director, Roger Salmon, will agree to subsidise the service in the long term. The board said it wanted to "remove uncertainty" for the next three months. Behind the scenes, BR - and the Government - is looking for a face-saving formula to save the service for good.

It was Mr Salmon's decision last December that he would no longer agree to pay for the service, which BR says loses pounds 2.5m a year, that prompted BR to announce it would no longer run the trains.

However, the service had to be extended beyond the proposed closure date of 28 May when the Highlands and Islands Regional Council launched a successful legal challenge over a technicality. The sleeper services are the only passenger trains on some small sections of line and BR proposed to run occasional late-night weekly "ghost" trains to avoid having to go through the stringent closure procedures.

Both the lower court and the appeal court in Scotland found against BR and the service has continued running, though passengers have complained that BR has discouraged bookings.

Although Mr Salmon has been adamant he must be allowed to close loss- making services, the damaging impact of the row on the Government's rail privatisation plans makes it likely that he will be asked by Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, to continue its funding.

Rail managers at Scotrail have also been lobbying to be allowed to keep on running the service, which they see as an important part of their network.

Adrian Quine, of the Friends of the West Highland Line Campaign, said: "This is wonderful news but not unexpected. The publicity given to the line thanks to our campaign should ensure that many more passengers will use it over the next few months."

The campaigners dispute the subsidy which BR says is needed. Calculations by Professor Bill Bradshaw, a railway economics expert, put the subsidy for each passenger at about pounds 45 rather than BR's pounds 180.

He added that the term Deerstalker Express was misleading. "This is not a train for toffs. Most people using it are local Scots or people going for walking holidays," he said.