Judge to rule on railways' future

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Transport Correspondent

The future of rail privatisation will be decided in the High Court today when a judge rules on whether the Government was wrong to allow potential cuts in services.

Yesterday, in a legal challenge to privatisation, Nigel Pleming QC, for the the anti-privatisation group Save our Railways, said that the franchising director, Roger Salmon, should not have set minimum service levels for new operators which were well below the present timetable. Mr Pleming said that the then Secretary of State, John MacGregor, had issued clear instructions in March 1994 that the service levels should be broadly the same before and after franchising.

However, when Mr Salmon, who acts under the direction of the Secretary of State for Transport, had drawn up "Passenger Service Requirements" (PSRs) for the first lines to be franchised, they required operators only to run a percentage of existing trains. Mr Pleming read out a number of letters from rail passengers and campaigners who had analysed the new PSRs and in many cases the proposed services were well below those currently run by British Rail.

Mr Pleming said that when the Railways Bill was being debated in Parliament in 1993 the message from the Government was: "Don't worry about existing levels of services. When we franchise, the existing level at that time will be the level that is franchised. Trust us on this."

The emphasis of guidelines and instructions given to Mr Salmon was on getting value for money and on flexibility.

Mr Justice Macpherson will give his judgment this afternoon and has said it will apply to all seven of the first franchises.

If Save our Railways is successful, Mr Salmon will have to postpone his announcement of the successful bidders, which is scheduled for next Tuesday, and the Government may be forced to start the whole franchising process from scratch, causing months of delays.