BR sell-off 'clash' played down by opposing sides: Top-level disagreements are surfacing over plans for rail privatisation, but the issue will soon enter the political limelight. Christian Wolmar reports

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The Independent Online
SIR BOB REID, the chairman of British Rail, and John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday played down reports of a row between them over the privatisation plans for British Rail.

Accounts of a rift have been surfacing since Sir Bob's strongly worded radio interview just before Christmas, in which he questioned the benefits of the privatisation process. He then, in the words of a BR source, 'scarpered after lighting the blue touch paper' by going on holiday to Portugal. Only the Christmas hiatus prevented the remarks from triggering a political debate.

The Daily Mail, however, is eager to emphasise that Sir Bob's future is in doubt. Under the front-page headline 'Collision over rail sell-off', it said yesterday that Mr MacGregor 'handed out an extraordinary dressing-down' to Sir Bob, and 'the ever-more open clashes between him and the Government suggest that he could soon be forced into stepping down'. This is unlikely; Sir Bob is in no mood to resign, even though he is sceptical of the plans.

Politically, the rail privatisation has been a low-key issue, partly because of recent economic crises and partly because of the complexity of the Government's plans to divide the BR network into a track authority and a series of franchises, to be granted to private operators.

However, over the next month it will move to centre-stage. The Department of Transport will publish its plans on how it will charge for the track, safety and freight, and the privatisation Bill will finally be published, probably on 21 January.

Public criticism of the proposals has come not just from predictable sources within the industry and the opposition parties, but from such Tory grandees as the Lords Ridley, Young and Whitelaw. Sir Bob's outburst, on top of the growing pressure from Tory circles, could not have been better timed to arouse Mr MacGregor's temper. Frantic efforts were made by the Government's publicity machine to try to play down the importance of what Sir Bob had said, but the cat was out of the bag: unlike most of the other privatisations, the managers of the body to be sold off could not be counted on for their support.

The Daily Mail, aware that all is not rosy in the privatisation garden but reluctant to separate itself from what is a Tory manifesto commitment, has, egged on by Central Office, decided to turn criticism back on BR and its chairman. BR is a soft target - one that its users love to hate - and such attacks will help deflect the flak from the Government's controversial proposals. As one BR source put it, 'it's a way of reminding the public that privatisation started because BR needed a shake-up. The fact that the Government has put up a scheme that everyone thinks is mad is immaterial to Central Office.'