Have you lost the plot?; A three-part series that explains the issues behind the news

Will our trains run on time?
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The Independent Online
The Byzantine rail privatisation process is reaching its conclusion after three years of delays, legal setbacks and concerted opposition from within and outside the industry. Despite this long debate, many people remain unclear about what privatisation entails and how it will affect services.

British Rail has been split into more than a 100 different parts, which are being prepared for sale. The biggest is Railtrack, which owns all the bits that don't move, such as stations and the track bed; this is expected to be sold in a flotation in May, bringing in about pounds 1.5bn to help the Chancellor with his tax cuts. The other large chunk is the rolling stock, which belongs to three companies that were privatised late last year for a total of pounds 1.8bn.

The rolling stock companies lease trains to the 25 train operators, three of which are to pass into private sector control next month, while the remainder are still publicly run. Of the rest, four are being prepared for handover to private managers in the summer. They are not being "sold" as such, because all the train operating companies will need subsidy, and thus are being handed over to the private company which offers to run the trains for the least amount of subsidy. The franchisee is then obliged to run all the services, usually for a term of seven years.

Various other sections of British Rail, including the freight companies, are in the process of being sold. So far, Red Star, Res (Rail Express Systems), which runs the mail trains and the royal train, and a number of maintenance depots have been sold, but the pace of disposal is hotting up and much of BR will have gone by the end of the year.

The big political question for the next year is whether the Government will manage to sell off Railtrack. The Labour Party has vowed to retain a "publicly controlled, publicly accountable" railway, but it has not said how it intends to do this or whether it will renationalise Railtrack.

Apart from the proliferation of logos and difficulties over arrangements between the new companies, the public will not notice much change until most of the 25 operators have been sold to companies that begin to impose their own policies. Warnings by Labour of massive cuts in services are countered by promises of improvements by the Conservatives.

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