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Budget Aftermath: Backing sought for West Coast rail line

WORK ON improving the West Coast main line, British Rail's worst performing major route, will not start until 1995 at the earliest as the Government searches for private sector finance.

Yesterday, John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, told MPs that between pounds 400m and pounds 600m would be sought from a private backer to provide new infrastructure for the line last refurbished in the 1960s. There are no plans for new rolling stock.

Although the Government had already announced that no public money was available to improve the line, Mr MacGregor yesterday spelt out the process to attract private investors. It was immediately criticised as a delaying tactic.

There will be two competitions to attract the private sector. In the next few days, Railtrack, the quango which takes over BR's infrastructure in April, will put out to tender a contract seeking consultants to draw up a schedule of performance standards for the improved line. Then, in about a year's time, a consortium to build the line will be sought to provide new signalling and track between Crewe and London. The northern section would not be improved, casting doubt over the long-term commitment to run through trains from Euston to Glasgow.

Although Mr MacGregor said he was unable to go into detail about how the scheme will be paid for, he stressed that an element of risk would be passed to the private sector. Revenues would depend on the performance of the line and it would be up to franchisees to decide fare levels.

Revenue on the line - known to be loss-making - is currently pounds 280m and it is unclear how the investment of pounds 600m will be found without sharp fare increases. The line is not among the first group of seven where private sector franchises are being sought, but the Government intends to speed up the franchising process.

Mr MacGregor said: 'Involving the private sector will not cause any delay' and he hopes that work will start in 1995. However, this was rejected by Brian Wilson, Labour's transport spokesman, who said: 'It's a typical form of delay. You announce a study, and then you announce a competition. In fact, in this case, there's two competitions which will cause even more delay. It will be decades before this line is improved.'

Opponents also pointed out that the cost of improving the infrastructure on the line had now risen to pounds 600m, from BR's estimate two years ago of pounds 400m.

British Rail was forced to abandon that scheme, part of an pounds 800m plan to improve both the rolling stock and infrastructure, in 1992 because of the shortage of revenue caused by the recession.

This new scheme now involves only the infrastructure because, according to Roger Freeman, the minister for public transport: 'It would be wrong to order the rolling stock before the performance specifications for the line have been drawn up.'

Last March, a consortium of Balfour Beatty, GEC Alsthom and Trafalgar House suggested a scheme involving investing pounds 900m in the line but this proposal has been put in abeyance because of the Government's insistence that competition for all stages of the process must be sought.

British Rail was last night reported to be relatively pleased with its Budget settlement. It expects that there will be about pounds 1bn available for investment next year, roughly what it expected.

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