BR's sell-off plans mystify islanders

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The Independent Online
BRITISH Rail is appointing a pounds 30,000-a-year franchise director on a line which employs 67 people. The aim is to cut costs before the line is privatised.

In May services on the line between Shanklin and Ryde on the Isle of Wight were cut from three an hour to two. In the autumn, according to a leaked provisional timetable, the service will be cut to one train per hour except at peak times, saving an estimated pounds 50,000.

Local users of the route are mystified by the cuts as the line has only recently been modernised and given refurbished London Underground trains. A senior BR source admitted privately that the scope for savings was very limited unless services were cut altogether. More than a million passengers each year use the eight-mile line.

An internal British Rail advertisement for the job of franchise director suggests that the successful applicant will need to 'implement initiatives to reduce significantly the annual operating deficit'. The advertisement also says that the post would suit someone who is 'highly motivated' and 'wishes to be at the vanguard of the privatisation programme or is thinking of leaving the industry within the next two years'.

The line is one of the first seven earmarked by the Government for privatisation. The local bus company, Southern Vectis, is the favourite to win the contract when it is put out to tender, probably in 1995, if it can overcome potential objections from the Office of Fair Trading.

Under the Government's privatisation proposals, the BR network is to be divided into 25 franchises which will be offered to the private sector to operate. The Isle of Wight line is by far the smallest being offered and differs from other franchises in that responsibility for both track and train operations is to be handed over to the successful bidder.

A senior BR source told the Independent on Sunday: 'This line barely has any staff already. There are just the drivers, and the people who collect the tickets on the train. You need them as there are no station booking staff. Then there's a handful of engineers and that's about it. It's ludicrous to appoint someone at that salary, because they would have to save pounds 30,000 per year for a start.'

Gerard Cassidy, a local Independent councillor, said: 'Cutting the services on what is a well-used line is ridiculous. They've spent a lot of money giving us new trains and now they will make the service so infrequent that no one will use it. It is well-used and cheaper than the bus.'

(Photograph omitted)