Public to confront failing railways

Trains: Commuters get chance to tackle private firms as figures show current service worse than BR
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The Independent Online
AGGRIEVED COMMUTERS will at last be able to able to make their points in person this week as the political row over who is to blame for the state of the railways chugs on.

With the privatised railway now officially worse than British Rail the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has called a public meeting, dubbed a rail summit, to be held on Thursday.

The 10 passenger watchdogs, the Rail User Consultative Committees (RUCCs) have been invited to send five representatives each, including one ordinary commuter.

One of the few to have secured a place is Geoff Meekums, a retired aerospace worker, from Edenbridge in Kent.

The event in central London will be dominated by speeches from Mr Prescott, Transport Ministers John Reid and Glenda Jackson, and the chairman of the new Strategic Rail Authority, who is expected to be named as ex-Eurotunnel boss Sir Alastair Morton as early as today.

But Mr Meekums will be among those passenger representatives who, according to sources, will get to make their views known through speeches and question and answer sessions.

This will be unpleasant listening for Ministers and the representatives of the rail industry because commuters do not care who is to blame for the problems or who takes credit for the successes.

They simply want a marked improvement in a railway service the Government describes as "unacceptable".

The Government is expected to use the event to announce initiatives, such as the terms on which the more successful companies can extend their franchises in exchange for extra investment. GNER and Connex will be among the bidders.

The rail industry will use it to announce a package of measures to improve rail performance in the medium and long term. Last November they unveiled a 10-point plan to bring short term improvements and on Thursday will give a progress report.

It is thought that the recent performance figures, which included a new A to E grading system that awarded just one A, and the summit, have been designed to mark a low-point for the industry.

The Government has said it will be held responsible if performance has not improved by November - a target that looks more achievable when starting from such a low base.

Meanwhile, it emerged yesterday that a team of undercover inspectors are to be sent out on to the railway network to discover what the public thinks about privatised services.

The Transport Minister John Reid said the Government wanted to be the "passenger's champion" in ensuring that standards improve.

"We want to look at a range of ways of making sure that the passenger is being put first. We want a better idea of what the passengers actually think," Mr Reid said.

He added that a good way of achieving this would be to have inspectors travelling on the networks speaking to people and reporting their findings to the Strategic Rail Authority.

Those companies which were not performing, he said, had "no future in the industry".