Labour will return Railtrack to public

Privatisation: Opposition pledge on ownership `unmistakable'
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JOHN RENTOUL and

CHRISTIAN WOLMAR

The strongest promise yet to restore Railtrack to public ownership was made to the Scottish Labour Conference in Edinburgh yesterday by Labour's Transport spokesman, Brian Wilson.

The pledge comes against the background of a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle over the wording of the party's statement in the sale prospectus for Railtrack - which is to be published at the end of this month for an expected pounds 1.5bn sell-off in May.

Mr Wilson told the conference: "As Tony Blair repeated and John Prescott spelled out, Labour is committed to a publicly owned, publicly accountable railway - the words are unmistakable in meaning. It means taking whatever steps are necessary to ensure that Railtrack is in public ownership. You cannot have a publicly owned, publicly accountable railway if someone else owns the tracks, the signals and the stations, and operates them for the maximisation of private profit."

The Labour leader - who refused last year to give a pledge to "renationalise" the railways - is understood to be seeking forms of public control which do not involve large spending commitments, while Mr Prescott, the deputy Labour leader, is pressing for a wholehearted commitment to buy back Railtrack if it is sold.

Drafts of Labour's prospectus statement have been worked on for some months, but the present version is still subject to some "fine tuning" by Mr Blair and Mr Prescott.

Mr Prescott won a rapturous ovation in Edinburgh on Saturday, declaring: "When we say a publicly owned, publicly accountable system, we mean exactly what we say", while Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, yesterday promised to "keep rail as a public service in the public sector run by dedicated public servants".

Mr Wilson also responded to Friday's fatal train accident near Stafford by calling for the directors of privatised rail companies to be held individually liable for safety breaches..

He went on to warn potential investors in the railways: "Let those who are clambering on to the rail privatisation gravy train understand very clearly: stealing public assets with Tory complicity is the easy bit; running a railway is a high-risk business, in every sense."

Yesterday, Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, denied that he had issued instructions to Roger Salmon, the franchising director, to speed up the passenger rail franchising programme. The Independent on Sunday published a leaked document which revealed that all 25 franchises were due to be privatised by the spring of next year, in time for a late general election.

However, speaking on Radio 4's The World This Weekend, Sir George accepted Mr Salmon was - in accordance with his remit - pushing ahead rapidly.

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