The final shunt for British Rail as the privatisation express steams in on time

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It was the privatisation they said really was impossible. Yet next week, for the first time since nationalisation almost 50 years ago, more than half of Britain's railway will be in private hands.

To the undoubted delight of the Tory party conference, another four rail franchises will be handed over to new private operators, bringing the total to 13 out of 25.

So far, however, apart from a spate of new logos and, last week, a new livery on Great Western, passengers will not have noticed much difference, although some will have been inconvenienced by the separation of the network into 25 companies which often fail to liaise properly creating problems over train connections. The new companies have made lots of promises, but given that it takes more than a year to change the timetable or to build a new train, nothing much will show through until after the election.

The first rail franchise was handed over to Stagecoach, the bus company, last February. Since then, the bulk of the franchises have been allocated to firms with connections to the bus industry such as National Express, Go-Ahead and FirstBus, sometimes in joint deals involving management buy- out teams. Sea Containers, the Bermuda-based shipping firm, and CGEA, part of Compagnie Generale des Eaux are the only large multinational firms to win franchises.

Transport ministers hope to have all the franchises let by the general election. As Railtrack and most of the now broken-up British Rail has already been privatised, this leaves a future Labour government with a seemingly impossible task if it is to bring about its promise of a "publicly owned, publicly accountable" railway.

The franchises, which are mostly for seven years, allows the successful bidder exclusive rights to operate trains on the specified routes and the franchising director, Roger Salmon, sets out detailed terms relating to train frequency, hours of operation and, in certain cases, rolling stock to be used. Where services are unprofitable, his requirements are largely the same as existing services, but where routes are profitable, he has allowed franchisees considerable leeway. The franchisees lease rolling stock from three companies privatised last December and pay Railtrack for the right to use the track and stations.

It is difficult to assess to what extent any improvements will be made on what British Rail would have done anyway. Roger Ford, editor of Rail Privatisation News, points out: "There is now around pounds 1.8bn in subsidy going into the rail industry, compared with pounds 1.1bn before the restructuring ... We don't know whether we are going to get value for that extra money."

All the new franchisees are expected to cut jobs but so far only two - South West Trains with 140 losses and SouthCentral with 60 - have made any firm announcements. A rash of job announcements is expected over the next few months.

Additional reporting by Oliver Burkeman

Who owns what in the new railway

CARDIFF RAILWAY

Owner: Prism Rail (small company launched on stock exchange to run rail services) Routes: Small franchise of services around Cardiff to the valleys and Barry and Penarth Passenger journeys: 5.8 million per year Subsidy: pounds 19.9m in 1997-78 to pounds 13.3m in 2003-04; Staff: 315 Prospects: Passenger use declined sharply last year and subsidy level remains relatively high.

LONDON, TILBURY & SOUTHEND

Owner: Prism Rail Routes: Services to East London and Essex coast from London Fenchurch Street Passenger journeys: 22 million Subsidy: pounds 29.5m in 1996-97 reducing to pounds 11.2m in 2010-11 Staff: about 700 Prospects: Line desperately needs new trains. Very dependent on commuter traffic.

SOUTH WALES & WEST

Owner: Prism Rail Routes: Regional services covering much of Wales and South West, and stretching to Birmingham and London Waterloo Passenger journeys: 12 million per year Subsidy: pounds 70.9m in 1997-98 declining to pounds 38.1m in 2003-04 Staff: 1,200 Prospects: First Regional Railways franchise, heavily subsidised and remains so throughout franchise term.

CHILTERN

Owner: M40 trains (MBO backed by 3i and John Laing) Routes: Services out of Marylebone to Aylesbury, High Wycombe and Birmingham Snow Hill Passenger journeys: 6.8 million per year Subsidy: pounds 16.5m in 1996-97 to pounds 2.9m in 2003 Staff: 350 Prospects: Discrete route. Recent modernisation of line already resulted in large increase in passengers. Provides alternative route to Birmingham to rival troubled West Coast.

NETWORK SOUTH CENTRAL Owner: CGEA (French multinational) to be run by subsidiary called Connex Routes: Suburban and regional services mainly out of London Victoria to south London and Sussex and Hampshire coasts Passenger journeys: 80 million per year Subsidy: pounds 85.3m in 1996-97 declining to pounds 34.6m in 2002-03 Staff: 2,700 Prospects: Unexciting deal with few improvements promised.

SOUTH EASTERN

Owner: CGEA (see previous) Routes: Suburban and regional services out of Victoria and other London termini to south London and Kent and Sussex coasts Passenger journeys: 103 million per year (most of all 25 franchises) Subsidy: pounds 125.4m subsidy reversing to a payment from franchisee of pounds 2.8m in 2011 Staff: 4,300 Prospects: Only franchise so far in which new rolling stock is a requirement, not an option. Subsidy reduction is amazingly sharp and will be difficult to remain profitable.

ISLAND LINE

Owner: Stagecoach Route: Smallest franchise with just 8.5 miles on Isle of Wight operated by old London Tube trains (includes track as well as services) Passenger journeys: 760,000 per year Subsidy: pounds 2m in 1996-97 reducing to pounds 1.75m in 2000-01 Staff: 44 Prospects: Future of line in doubt as shown by short term of franchise.

SOUTH WEST TRAINS

Owner: Stagecoach Routes: Suburban and Regional services out of London Waterloo covering south London and stretching to Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Weymouth Passenger journeys: 95 million per year Subsidy: pounds 60.1m in 1996-97, declining to pounds 40.3m in 2002-03 Staff: 3,760 Prospects: First franchise allocated offering no frills or thrills, though now there is the prospect of new trains if Stagecoach is allowed to take over Porterbrook rolling stock company.

MIDLAND MAIN LINE

Owner: National Express Routes: InterCity services out of St Pancras to East Midlands and Sheffield Passenger journeys: 5.2 million per year Subsidy: pounds 16.5m to a payment by franchisee of pounds 10m in 2006 Staff: 1,100 Prospects: On paper, looks best franchise deal so far with lots of innovation and strongly reducing subsidy. Promises of several additional services and possible parkway station north of Loughborough.

GATWICK EXPRESS

Owner: National Express Route: Shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick Airport Passenger journeys: 3.6 million Subsidy: None; pounds 4.6m will be paid by franchisee in 1996, increasing to pounds 22.6m in 2010-11 Staff: 300 Prospects: Big test for franchising concept as new rolling stock is essential.

GREAT WESTERN

Owner: Management buy-out with backing from First Bus and 3i Routes: InterCity services from London Paddington to West, South West and South Wales Passenger journeys: 14 million per year Subsidy: pounds 59.87m in 1996- 97 reducing to pounds 36.9m in 2002-03 Staff: 2,783 Prospects: Has promised refurbished trains and already introduced new livery. Plans split trains and increased services to Bristol and Cardiff.

EAST COAST

Owner: Sea Containers Routes: Main line services from King's Cross to the North East and Scotland Passenger journeys: 11 million per year Subsidy: pounds 64.6m this year reducing to nothing in 2002-03 Staff: 2,900 Prospects: Line recently refurbished but looking at the possibility of tilting trains and buying extra trains. May also build parkway stations near Edinburgh, Doncaster and M25.

THAMES

Owner: Victory Railway (MBO and Go-Ahead bus group) Routes: Suburban and regional services out of London Paddington Passenger journeys: 24 million per year Subsidy: pounds 33.2m in 1997-98 declining to zero in 2004 Staff: approx 1,000 Prospects: Several extra services and possibility of new station near Heathrow.

UNALLOCATED FRANCHISES Anglia Railways, Cross Country, Merseyrail, Great Eastern, West Anglia Great Northern, ScotRail, North West Regional Railways, Regional Railways North East, Central Trains, Thameslink, InterCity West Coast, North London Railways.

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