Prescott calls in failing rail firms for a dressing down

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The Independent Online
TRAIN COMPANIES are like- ly to be told how they should run the railways when they meet John Prescott later this month.

Industry sources believe he will reveal the details of his vision when he holds a "summit meeting" on 26 November. Mr Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Transport, Environment and the Regions, may also outline how the passenger rail franchises, some of which are due for renewal in 2003, will be awarded. The Government announced yesterday that it was meeting the 25 train companies and Railtrack after official figures showed reliability and punctuality had deteriorated sharply. The meeting comes just two days after the Queen's Speech, which will indicate whether plans for a Strategic Rail Authority will pass into legislation over the coming year.

Ministers have said that if the Bill is not in the Queen's Speech, they will set up a "shadow" SRA.

The industry is eager to learn how the franchises will be re-let and claims that any hesitation could delay new train orders. Some companies are lobbying for their franchises to be re-let early in exchange for promises of new investment.

The original franchises were let under rules set by the Conservative government, aimed primarily at getting value for the taxpayer, which led to franchises being given to the cheapest bidder. The Government has made clear it wants to see franchises linked to improved performance and companies that fail the passenger will have no future in the industry.

Figures from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf) showed that punctuality in the three months to September fell compared with a year earlier, with 42 route groups showing a decline and only 19 improving. Reliability declined on 32 route groups, half the network, while 26 improved.

The Association of Train Operating Companies said it would bring a "constructive approach" to the meeting. "We are looking for recognition that a lot of encouraging progress has been made and that it is not all doom and gloom," David Campbell- Bannerman, Atoc communications director, said.

The meeting may also resolve a growing feud between Railtrack and the train companies. Railtrack, which is awaiting the result of a review of the level of the charges for access to its track, believes reliability and punctuality problems are the fault of the train companies. They in turn blame Railtrack for selling more "paths" for trains than are available. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions said it could not comment on the agenda for the meeting on 26 November.