Rail standstill needed for franchise handover

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

The trains may have to stop for rail privatisation. Roger Salmon, the rail franchising director, has realised that he cannot sell the train operations to the private sector if any trains are running on the lines at the time of the transfer.

As a result, next month's handover of the first three lines, none of which run all night, will have to take place early in the morning. But future services where all-night trains are operating will have to be sold when one of the late trains reaches its destination, or a train will have to be cancelled to give time for the transfer to take place.

A spokesman at Mr Salmon's office said the problem was that if any trains were running at the precise time at which responsibility was transferred, "it will be impossible to allocate costs between the parties involved". Legal problems would also arise if there were an accident on the train during the time of its transfer.

Mr Salmon has therefore been consulting rail timetables to find a time when there are no services. Early on Sunday morning has emerged as the favourite, possibly as soon as 4 February, because there are no early- morning commuter trains on a Sunday.

Fortunately for Mr Salmon, the first three lines expected to go to the private sector next month - South West Trains, Great Western and London, Tilbury & Southend - do not have all-night services.

But with trains running until the early hours of Sunday, the transfer would have to take place between 1am and 4am. However, in terms of public relations, that time of the week would be a flop, as journalists would be reluctant to travel on an early Sunday morning train, even if it was to celebrate Britain's first private train service for nearly half a century. The new companies also fear that if some minor local train becomes the first to be privatised, it runs a much greater risk of breaking down or being cancelled than a main commuter service or InterCity service.

Network SouthCentral, one of the next four franchises due to be allocated, runs trains all night to Gatwick airport. Then there may be the moment Mr Salmon dreads, when the trains have to stop for privatisation.