Record number of complaints as Railtrack comes under fire

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The Independent Online
STEPHEN GOODWIN

Complaints from rail passengers have reached an all-time high, with moans about train cancellations up by almost 25 per cent, a rail watchdog said yesterday.

Total complaints received by the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee reached 10,166 in 1994-95 - a rise of 2.4 per cent on the previous year.

The evidence of growing customer dissatisfaction came as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats moved to deter would-be investors in the privatisation of Railtrack, the company that owns Britain's rail network.

Confirming a disclosure in yesterday's Independent, the Liberal Democrats promised to reacquire a controlling interest in Railtrack without any profits passing to the share purchasers. The cost to the taxpayer could be up to pounds 1bn. But Paul Tyler, the party's transport spokesman, told a Westminster press conference: "It is our belief that so long as we can persuade the Labour Party to be equally robust and radical that nobody is going to buy into Railtrack before the general election."

Labour, however, is pursuing what it regards as a more sophisticated deterrent, threatening to reduce the access charges Railtrack can levy on train operators. The charges will account for about 80 per cent of the company's income which, under the Government's plan, should be about pounds 2bn a year. Michael Meacher, the party's spokesman on transport, said that the Liberal Democrat approach, particularly its acceptance of privately run train services, was too timid. "To say you don't care about the future ownership of train operators is a mistake.

"Labour is in favour of a publicly-owned, publicly accountable rail network," Mr Meacher said. However, the party is anxious not to give hostages to fortune and will not set out its rail priorities until the election, depending on what the Government has managed to sell.

The Liberal Democrat proposals, set out in a paper entitled Towards a Working Railway, are aimed at doubling the number of passengers and amount of freight carried by rail and reducing car pollution and congestion.

The responsibilities of Railtrack, the Franchise Director and British Rail would be drawn together into a small strategic body, the National Railway Authority. Citing a fall in the valuation of Railtrack from more than pounds 4bn to about pounds 1bn, Mr Tyler said the company could be re-nationalised for a "modest" sum, taking a 51 per cent holding and spreading the cost over 10 years by bonds. Instead of "splintering" the railway network into nearly 100 parts, the party advocates a smaller number of private regional companies.

The regulator's duty to promote competition would be scrapped and replaced with a duty to achieve growth targets for passengers and freight carried. A key part could be the reduction of fares by up to a third.

According to the rail users' committee, the record number of 10,166 complaints could be only the tip of the iceberg. It said train operating companies recorded and analysed complaints on computer, but the CRUCC had not been able to access this data. "The volume of complaints received by the CRUCC is very much smaller than the representations made by passengers direct to operators," the committee said.

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