'British Rail' back on the tracks - for now

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The Independent Online

This morning British commuters will travel on the first newly nationalised railway since Clement Attlee created British Railways 55 years ago, as the Strategic Rail Authority takes over the running of the lines of the disgraced French company Connex.

The SRA chairman, Richard Bowker, sacked the company from its franchise running trains in Kent and Sussex in June, although the reason was financial management rather than poor performance. Mr Bowker said he had "lost confidence" in Connex South Eastern because it had failed to meet its obligations after being given £58m of public money at the end of last year.

Today passengers boarding at stations from Charing Cross, London Bridge and Victoria on some of the busiest lines in the country will be paying their fares to a state-owned firm, set up until a private company is chosen to run a new franchise, which will include the new Channel Tunnel fast lines, in 2005.

The return to the public sector ends an unhappy marriage between the French company, which had it origins as a water utility, and British railway managers. Mr Bowker had insisted on improvements to Connex's financial management processes and finally lost patience, ruling that it had failed to deliver. Connex has always maintained that there was no proof of financial mismanagement. The company had already lost its South Central franchise running trains into Surrey and Sussex.

Passengers will shed few tears for Connex, which gained a reputation for poor service, although in fact its performance was about average for south-east England. However its trains, some of the oldest in the country, were frequently dirty and overcrowded. It recently annoyed passenger groups by ordering new trains without toilets so that more passengers could be crammed in.

Michael Holden, managing director of the new company, South Eastern Trains, said: "My plan for the next 12 months is simple: to get it right, first time, more often. The only way it can be achieved is to focus the whole organisation tightly on the relentless, repetitive detail of our operation, day in, day out."

Mr Bowker has emphasised that this is not a foretaste of further privatisation, although Network Rail recently announced that it was taking all track maintenance away from private contractors. And South Eastern Trains will not be the only publicly run train operator in Britain.

Since privatisation in 1996, the state-owned BNFL, which runs the Sellafield nuclear waste reprocessing plant in Cumbria, has continued to run nuclear flask trains, and has latterly expanded to bid for general freight business.