A leaked plan drawn up by the franchising director, Roger Salmon, shows that he intends to privatise all 25 train operators by 24 March next year which, barring the death of too many Tory MPs, is likely to be in time for the general election. Mr Salmon is under instructions from Sir George Young, the transport secretary, to speed up the privatisation programme which, so far, has seen only two lines privatised in the two years since the legislation was passed.
The sell-off of the franchises is over a year behind the original programme and ministers are furious that few of the supposed benefits of privatisation will show through in time for the general election.
However, by completing the sale, the Tories will be able to point to their achievement in selling virtually the whole industry by the election date.
Railtrack is due to be sold this spring. The three rolling stock companies were sold late last year for pounds 1.8bn, four of the five freight companies have gone to Wisconsin Central, and the sale of 13 infrastructure and maintenance units is due to be completed at the end of next month.
British Rail will probably be reduced to a shell by next spring, with only around 60 head office staff - compared with 700 now - and a few dormant subsidiaries.
Last month, in a row with Labour, Sir George denied that he had ordered Mr Salmon to speed up the sale of the franchises, but the leaked document shows that Mr Salmon is working to a very tight timetable.
Clare Short, Labour's transport spokeswoman, said: "The Tories are pursuing a policy driven by an obsession to sell off everything by the election. They are taking risks with our transport system regardless of the cost to the travelling public and the transport network."
Industry insiders doubt whether such a rapid sale of the passenger franchises is possible. Those for West Coast and North London have problems over the state of the lines, while Merseyrail and Central are complicated because local passenger transport executives provide subsidies for many services.
Stephen Joseph, director of the pro-rail group Transport 2000, said: "This breakneck speed flies in the face of all the chaos so far, such as the LTS ticket fraud. They are not doing this for the benefit of rail passengers."
When your line is due to be sold
Inter City East Coast; Midland Main Line
London; Tilbury and Southend; Network SouthCentral
South Eastern Trains; Chiltern Railway
Cardiff Railway; South Wales and West;
Anglia; Scotrail; Cross Country
27 January 1997
Merseyrail; Great Eastern; West Anglia;
Great Northern; Central Trains; Thameslink
24 February 1997
InterCity West Coast; North London Railways
24 March 1997
Regional Railways North East; Regional Railways North West
Great Western Trains and South West Trains were privatised on 4 Feb 1996Reuse content