Judge rejects claim that rail sell-off is unlawful

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

Rail campaigners will go to the Court of Appeal on Monday in a last- ditch attempt to stop the rail privatisation process, after a judge ruled against them in the High Court yesterday.

In a forthright judgment, Mr Justice Macpherson rejected the campaigners' claims that the franchise director, Roger Salmon, had been wrong to set minimum standards of service for private operators which are well below those at present run by British Rail.

The case for judicial review was brought by the anti- privatisation group Save Our Railways, which argued that "Passengers Service Requirements" that set the minimum level of service for operators under the new structure for the privatised railways allowed for substantial cuts in services. The campaigners argued that this was unlawful because Mr Salmon is supposed to have based his requirements on the existing timetable.

The judge, however, accepted the arguments of counsel for the franchise director, who said that the word "based" did not mean "the same as".

The judge stressed that the PSRs are not the ultimate timetable. They are supposed to allow a certain amount of flexibility for operators to run commercially profitable services at times and frequencies which they choose.

The judge ruled that he was unable to say that Mr Salmon had acted either "perversely, irrationally or unfairly", which were the only types of behaviour the court was able to declare were unlawful.

Indeed, the judge was critical of Save Our Railways for having brought the case, arguing that "too many cases come to this court which have no place here". He said: "The director and staff have indeed based themselves on current levels of service. Evidence shows the director used the timetables as a starting point and that was what he was enjoined to do." Consequently, the judge rejected Save Our Railways' application for leave to appeal but the campaigner said they would apply to the Court of Appeal on Monday.

Jimmy Knapp, leader of the RMT rail workers' union, which is part of the Save Our Railways campaign, said: "Privatisation will lead to major cuts in services. We won the transport argument but lost the legal one."

Labour's transport spokeswoman, Clare Short, said: "This result is very disappointing for Britain's rail users as it allows the Government and private operators to go ahead and cut rail services after privatisation."

Ms Short said it was notable that the judge emphasised how he did not want to interfere in political decisions, but did not state that the cuts to services were reasonable or desirable.

The failure of the case opens the way for Mr Salmon to announce the winners of the franchises for two of the first three lines on Tuesday, which are likely to be the management buy-out team for the London, Tilbury and Southend line, and Stagecoach for South West Trains. The winning bidder for the third line, Great Western Railway, which is also likely to go to the management buy-out team, will be announced a few days later.

Nick Newton, the assistant franchise director, said: "We will press on with the franchising process. The judge recognised that we are safeguarding vulnerable services, while allowing operators to run commercially profitable services."

Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, said: "I welcome the decision to allow the franchising director to proceed with the first tranche of franchises and look forward to his announcement of their award soon."