Motorail to be axed in BR sell-off

Union goes to court to stop privatisation
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The Independent Online
MOTORAIL, the service that takes motorists and their cars from the south of England to Scotland, has become the first victim of rail privatisation in a financial purge that has devastating implications for rural and little-used lines.

Disclosure of the shutdown has emerged as lawyers acting for the rail union RMT begin the legal process of seeking a judicial review of the government's proposal to sell off Railtrack, state owners of £6 billions-worth of stations and permanent way.

Proceedings will begin in the High Court this week or next. RMT argues that ministers are acting outside their powers in privatising the rail infrastructure. Railtrack was not even mentioned in the 1993 privatisation act.

If the move for a judicial review succeeds, the privatisation - designed to yield a massive war-chest for pre-election tax cuts - may have to be suspended, or even abandoned altogether.

The Motorail service will cease at the end of May, when the new summer timetable comes into operation, forcing thousands more vehicles on to the roads at the height of the holiday season in spite of the government's official policy that more traffic should go by rail.

Staff at Motorail's Edinburgh headquarters were told on 23 December - ironically, the day after car-carrying trains began to run through the Channel Tunnel - that the long-established "piggy-back" service to Scotland for motorists was to be scrapped. However, tourism promotion chiefs were unaware of the decision until two days ago.

Motorail is a victim of the new public funding arrangements for the railways. Roger Salmon, the Franchising Director, has cut the subsidy for sleeper services, so that only two out of seven currently running will survive. These combined trains will be too long to accommodate GUV car-carrying rail vehicles.

But Opposition critics of the rail privatisation process predict that the cash squeeze on Scotrail, which is to operate the slimmed-down sleeper services, will eventually impact on all 25 train operators, forcing line closures and service cuts.

Henry McLeish, Labour's Transport Spokesman, said: "Cuts in the subsidy becoming effective in 1995/96 mean that Scotrail is facing a financial crisis imposed by the government. We could end up with a network based in the central belt, with all other services under the microscope to see whether services can continue. It is that serious.

"The problems for Scotrail are more immediate , but virtually all the 25 train operators will be facing the same sort of problems. The government has unleashed a Frankenstein monster - Railtrack - which is levying charges for access that bear no relationto usage, and which will cripple train operators. It will devour lines built up by BR over many decades. Routes and services will disappear, frequencies will change dramatically and there will be a threat to jobs."

Opposition Trade and Industry spokesman, Brian Wilson, who fought the 1993 Railway Act during its parliamentary passage, added: "The insidious thing is that falsely inflated costs for track access are now being used to show a supposedly-huge subsidy per user. That is exactly what we warned would happen, and it has very serious implications for every rural service in Britain."

At present seven Motorail trains each way connect London and Bristol daily (except Saturday) with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. The service carries about 20,000 cars a year, and though loss-making is regarded as a prestige part of the service to Scotland, patronised by foreign tourists as well as domestic holidaymakers and business users.

About a dozen reservation staff at Motorail's HQ will lose their jobs, but many more redundancies are likely right down the line to London, involving train maintenance staff, drivers and conductors.

RMT leaders fear the scrapping of Motorail is the shape of things to come. "This came like a bolt from the blue," said a union spokesman. "Only the week before the announcement to staff, they had been working on increasing the services in the summer. It was being looked at very positively.

"This is something we feared from the very beginning, that we are going to see a gradual squeeze on rail finance that will mean a squeeze on services and people. Services at weekends will be attacked next, because they are not heavily used."

The rail union's legal moves to frustrate privatisation of Railtrack follows private talks with Labour's transport team, who also plan a strong campaign against the sell-off over the next few weeks, particularly in Tory marginal seats. "We are very pleased that RMT has decided to go ahead with their attempt to win a judicial review. It could torpedo the flotation, which the Tories have scheduled for April 1996."