Rail sale may miss deadline

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday started digging himself out of the hole left by his predecessors when he admitted that the rail privatisation may not run to its timetable.

Over the past months, ministers have reiterated several times that half the British Rail network, in terms of revenue, will be franchised out by 1 April next year. That target was first announced by John MacGregor two years ago. But industry analysts and, privately, the franchise bidders have been arguing that it will be impossible to meet the deadline because the process is so complicated.

Speaking on GMTV's Sunday Programme, Sir George said that the timetable remained but it wouldn't be the end of the world "if it slipped a bit". The target has been seen as a millstone around Sir George's neck. Since the deadline was set it has acquired a high profile.

Sir George, who said that good progress was being made, appeared not fully to understand his own target. He said: "This month, 51 per cent [of the franchises] will have had their service requirements defined. At the end of the year, about 51 per cent of the franchises will be out to tender."

In fact, according to the programme drawn up by Roger Salmon, the franchising director, only seven or eight of the 25 franchises will have had their service levels defined by the end of this month. The target has always been expressed in terms of revenue, not the number of franchises, as the bigger franchises, with most revenue, are being let first. Sir George, however, appeared to accept that the sale of Railtrack was dependent on letting out many of the franchises.