Critics scent retreat over BR sell-off

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

CONFUSED government signals over British Rail persisted last night after John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, spoke of 'plans for commercialising' passenger services in a speech that had been trailed as 'full speed ahead for privatisation', writes Anthony Bevins.

When the text of the speech, due to be made by Mr MacGregor in his South Norfolk constituency, was issued by Conservative Central Office, the word privatisation was not mentioned once in the body of the text.

Instead, the Secretary of State repeated the 'commercialisation' formula he had used at the weekend, saying: 'Most of the recent criticisms of our plans for commercialising BR passenger services are based on complete misunderstandings of what we are actually proposing . . . What we are aiming to do through franchising of passenger services is to inject into the railways more private sector skills and resources - management, marketing and capital - to put the needs of customers first and foremost and develop a better service.'

But while those proposals were made in last July's White Paper, New Opportunities for the Railways, ministers now appear reluctant to speak of 'the privatisation of British Rail' that was suggested in that document, and government critics suspect that change of language signals a change of direction.

Brian Wilson, a Labour transport spokesman, last night called on Mr MacGregor to stop 'playing around', and end uncertainty about the industry's future.

'If at the end of the day the whole ballyhoo is going to add up to franchising out of a few face- saving lines, while BR get on with the difficult job of running the network, then Mr MacGregor should say so.' Great damage was being caused by the uncertainty.