Labour Conference: Passengers' power to rule on railways

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The Independent Online
PASSENGER POWER is to be used by John Prescott as part of sweeping changes to force the private rail companies to raise their standards of service to their customers.

The Tory-appointed rail regulators are to be replaced in a "Spring Clean" announced by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday to the Labour conference in Blackpool.

He is appointing a shadow strategic rail authority from April to enforce higher standards and impose penalties on private rail firms for failing to meet their service targets.

The new strategic authority will be reinforced by a draft Bill to be announced in the Queen's Speech, as disclosed yesterday in The Independent. Officials said they would be using persuasion, with the threat to legislate if that did not work. "We think persuasion will work, but it will strengthen our hand to have the legislation on the way," said a ministerial source.

The public will be given the chance to sound off about falling service standards in public hearings and public opinion surveys, on which the new regulators will be expected to act. A passenger group may also have a seat on the new shadow authority.

Mr Prescott was given a standing ovation after telling delegates: "I am switching the points in the privatised railways away from poor punctuality and reliability, overcrowding and inadequate rolling stock towards a modern, efficient top-class service for the 21st century."

He will use the existing laws to force the companies to renegotiate their contracts to run services if they consistently fail to meet their targets or seek to extend their contracts.

John O'Brien, the franchise regulator, will be paid an undisclosed sum for the early cancellation of his contract from next April. His role will be carried out by the new shadow authority.

The rail regulator, John Swift, who resigned last week, will be replaced by his chief economic adviser, Chris Bolt, who will remain independent and review the subsidy from trains operators to Railtrack, review access charges, improve Railtrack investment in the rail infrastructure and establish a new deal with the rolling stock companies.

There was also overwhelming support for Mr Prescott when he announced that he has ordered officials to settle a long-running battle with the unions over the Tory government's multimillion-pound raid on the pension funds of bus workers when their firms were privatised.

"I have instructed our lawyers to stop the legal fancy-dancing. I have told them to open discussions with the pension trustees to achieve a just out-of-court settlement, as quickly as possible in the coming months to end this shameful delay," he said.

Reassuring the conference that he was not retreating on the Public Transport White Paper, Mr Prescott said he was going ahead with congestion charges on motorists commuting by car into towns and cities, which would allow resources to be redirected into investment to improve public transport. The Transport Bill will be published for consultation, but the implementation could be delayed until there is more time in the Parliamentary timetable. Ministers said that there was no doubt that the Bill would be enacted before the next general election.

Ministers believe that the legislation may be necessary to force some private firms to raise their standards. It will also give the franchise director more powers over Railtrack, the company in charge of the infrastructure of the rail network.

Lew Adams, attending his last conference as general secretary of Aslef, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, said he had never seen a transport policy document better than the Government's White Paper. He told delegates: "It will do much to fulfil our aspirations. We must not miss this opportunity." But he was worried about any delay in enacting the legislation.