Minister ready for BR discounts climbdown: Win for Tory rebels on railcards as Government announces plan to split passenger rail network into 25 franchises

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The Independent Online
JOHN MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, was last night poised for a rail privatisation Bill climbdown over concessionary fares, averting a revolt by backbench Tory MPs.

But ministers were adamant that there would be no concession on the more critical question of whether British Rail should be allowed to compete in bidding for franchises.

Amendments covering both issues will be debated today. Up to 15 Conservative backbenchers including a number from rural constituencies, in effect led by Sir Keith Speed, MP for Ashford, had indicated they would rebel over guarantees for concessionary railcards after privatisation.

In a series of cordial but firm discussions with Mr MacGregor yesterday, Sir Keith and other MPs pressed the case for guarantees covering railcards for pensioners, students and young people, and the London travelcard to be specifically written into the Bill. Throughout the day transport ministers re-emphasised that there was no current statutory obligation to provide discounts, except those for disabled people which the Government has already agreed to protect. BR offered railcard deals applying to off-peak services for strictly commercial reasons - and private operators were highly likely to do likewise.

Cut-price fares were 'a very important marketing tool,' Mr MacGregor said. A compromise form of words will probably find its way into a clause in the Bill. The Government is not expected, however, to impose specific obligations on franchisee companies to promise deals.

One minister said a compromise clause, likely to be introduced as a government amendment in the House of Lords, 'would reassure people that something is going to happen that was going to happen anyway'.

The Westminster politicking came as the Government announced that BR would be split into 25 passenger franchise areas on privatisation. The first franchises will be awarded in the second half of next year and the remainder over the following few years.

InterCity and Regional Railways will each be divided into seven different franchise areas and Network SouthEast commuter services into 11.

The first line to be auctioned off is likely to be the Gatwick Express service from Victoria station, London, which should be in private operation by the autumn of 1994.

A further half dozen or so services will be franchised to private operators in the autumn of 1995. They include the InterCity East Coast main line from King Cross to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh; the Great Western main line from Paddington to the West Country; ScotRail; the so-called London-Southend 'misery line' and Network SouthEast's south western division, which runs commuter services from Waterloo. The rest of the network would follow later.

With a Commons Tory majority of 18, it would take only 10 rebels to leave the Government in serious trouble. But as few as three dissenters - including Sir Keith, Tim Rathbone, MP for Lewes and Hugh Dykes, MP for Harrow East - would be likely to vote against the Government on the question of whether BR should be allowed to tender for the 25 proposed franchised routes.

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