MPs fight to save rail lines as timetable cuts begin

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The Independent Online
THE MAN responsible for the future of rail services is cutting trains from the timetable before the obligatory public consultation has been carried out.

Roger Salmon, the Director of Rail Franchising, has confirmed to Highland Regional Council that sleepers and Motorail will not be included in the Passenger Service Requirement - or minimum requirements - consultation later this year because these services will already have been withdrawn before the process begins in May.

"We should not, in such circumstances, include these particular services in the Passenger Service Requirement,'' he wrote.

Mr Salmon first announced in December that he was cutting subsidies to the Motorail network and the London-Carlisle, Plymouth-Glasgow and 101- year-old London-Fort William sleeper services in May. This effectively removed safeguards for the services, for franchised operators of the rail network will be under no obligation to run them. The demise of the sleeper services has dismayed a broad church of supporters, from tourists to MPs and Scottish Office ministers, who fear that their disappearance will hit the tourist industry and undermine the economy of the communities they serve.

The franchising director's decision has already led to an embarrassing split within the Cabinet over railways. For, while Transport Secretary Brian Mawhinney has put his weight behind rail privatisation, the Scottish Secretary of State, Ian Lang, is campaigning for a reversal of Mr Salmon's decision to remove subsidies. Lord Henley, the Defence Minister, who lives in a castle near Carlisle, has also written to transport ministers to express his concern about the cuts.

Next week an all-party delegation of MPs who say cuts to the overnight service will seriously affect the time they spend in their far-flung constituencies will meet John Watts, the Transport Minister, to argue for a reprieve. MPs who regularly use sleepers include Liberal Democrats Sir David Steel, Alan Beith, and Charles Kennedy, Home Office Minister David McLean, and Labour's Eric Martlew and Dale Campbell Savours.

Mr Campbell Savours, Labour MP for Workington said: "They are wrecking my travel arrangements from London. There is no way I can get back to my constituency on Thursday night. I miss the last train, the roads are too congested and there's no airport nearby. The sleeper is the only way. It's a disaster."

Hopes of at least a temporary reprieve, which would keep the services running beyond May, rose this week when Scottish Office junior minister Sir Hector Monro said there would be "full consultation". Yesterday Labour's industry spokesman Brian Wilson urged a mass public "write-in" to rail regulator John Swift in an attempt to save Motorail and sleeper services.

Mr Wilson, the MP for the Scottish seat of Cunninghame North, said that gaining a formal inquiry into the plan would represent "a victory for every vulnerable service in Britain".