Tories 'paving way' for deep rail cuts

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

The Government has opened the way to severe cuts in rail services by allowing "lightly used" trains to be phased out, Labour warned yesterday.

Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, was forced to reissue his instructions to the franchising director, Roger Salmon, last week following the partly successful challenge to the franchising process by the Save Our Railways campaign.

But Labour claims the new instructions, instead of preserving services, will enable Mr Salmon to omit trains from his contract specifications "where you judge that a train is exceptionally lightly used" and if it is not providing an essential service. Mr Salmon must also assure himself that the service is not "good value for money".

Already several early and late trains, and a few services such as the InterCity train linking Paddington with Carmarthen, have been omitted from the specifications drawn up for the first seven franchises, three of which have been allocated to private operators.

The Court of Appeal case focused on the extent to which Mr Salmon had to base his minimum levels of services for private operators on the existing BR timetable. The court had decided that under previous Government instructions, only very small variations were allowed.

Hugh Bayley, Labour MP for York, argues that the amended instructions break government commitments to ensure that privatisation does not lead to rail cuts. He said: "When the rail privatisation legislation was going through three years ago, ministers repeatedly promised there would be no cuts to services and that services would be based on the existing timetable. This is now shown to be a lie".

Mr Bayley said that in 1993, rail managers had drawn up a list of lines which they expected to close as "the first casualties of privatisation". These include: Ipswich to Lowestoft and Norwich to Sheringham; Truro to Falmouth, St Erith to St Ives, Par to Newquay, Exeter to Barnstable; Hull to Scarborough and Whitby to Middlesbrough; Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury and Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog; Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness and Barrow-in-Furness to Settle.

However, Mr Salmon argues that in the initial franchises, the number of cuts to trains has been very small and that in fact the successful bidder for the InterCity lines out of Paddington has agreed to reinstate the direct Carmarthen service.

Keith Bill, of Save Our Railways, said that his organisation would decide next week whether or not to launch another court action. He said: "Sir George had the chance to make sure there would be no cuts and instead he has paved the way for out and out cuts."