Prescott backs vision of rail network run by a handful of companies

Deputy PM says licences will be awarded to fewer operators, with speculation that Connex may be among the first to lose out
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The Independent Online

John Prescott made clear yesterday that a number of rail companies are likely to lose their franchises in response to the Hatfield crash.

John Prescott made clear yesterday that a number of rail companies are likely to lose their franchises in response to the Hatfield crash.

The Deputy Prime Minister's comments came amid speculation that Connex, owned by the French conglomerate Vivendi, could become the first casualty of renegotiation with its South Central commuter franchise going to the Govia group, part of the French state railway SNCF.

Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority (SSRA), has proposed that just five rail companies should run 21 franchises, compared with the 10 that now operate 25.

As work began to remove the remaining carriages from the Hatfield derailment, Mr Prescott said that the renegotiation of franchises was beginning to reduce the number of operators in the industry as well as the "problems which have come from fragmentation.

"So there are less and less operators likely at the moment, and more likely to be reduced in the final stages of this renegotiation of these franchises," he said.

Bernard Jenkin, the Tory transport spokesman, said that the renegotiation of train company franchises was "completely in line" with the structure of privatisation that Mr Prescott inherited from the last Tory government. "Refranchising is effectively reprivatisation," he said.

Tom Winsor, the rail industry regulator, is today expected to announce a £5bn increase in Railtrack's funding over the next five years to modernise the network and improve safety standards.

The burden of funding improvements is likely to be split between the Government and train operating companies, with Railtrack given leeway to raise extra revenue from the railway industry.

The Health and Safety Executive is expected to report to the Deputy Prime Minister tomorrow on Railtrack's procedures, particularly relating to maintenance and whether the best safety practices are being operated across the system. "If they are not doing that, the agencies make a recommendation to me, and I have the authority to take the licence from Railtrack," said Mr Prescott.

Yesterday work to remove the wreckage from the scene of last Tuesday's disaster continued. The lead locomotive and two carriages were lifted on to low-loader trailers after being towed to Hatfield station. They will be transported to a Crewe depot for tests.

Technical experts were due to assess the crash site further before the three overturned carriages were lifted.

Four men died and 34 people were injured when the GNER London-Leeds Intercity 225 train derailed on a bend half a mile south of Hatfield. An interim report into the crash blamed a broken rail, stating that metal fatigue could have been a key factor. Railtrack has identified 81 trouble spots across the network that have "similar characteristics" to the track believed to have caused the Hatfield disaster.

A report by Booz Allen last year found that more than 2,000 miles of railway were not up to standard. It concluded that up to 11 per cent of track checked between 1994 and 1998 was below a satisfactory standard. Yet, at the current replacement rate, it would take 10 years to upgrade all the poor track. The report said many of the poor stretches of track were on high-speed routes.

Yesterday, at a memorial service, the people of Hatfield gathered to pay their respects to the four men who died and pray for those who had been injured. People affected by the derailment came together to light candles and say prayers at a special service conducted by the Rector of Hatfield, the Rev Richard Pyke.

For many of those who filed into the historic stone church of St Etheldreda, it was an opportunity to bring peace to a Hertfordshire town caught up in the tragedy.

"Many of our parishioners live near the railway lines so it has had a very immediate effect," said Mr Pyke.

They came to remember pilots Steve Arthur, 46, a father-of-two from Pease Pottage, West Sussex, and Robert Alcorn, 37, a New Zealander living in Bayswater, west London, who had just started a job piloting Mika Hakkinen, the Formula One racing driver. They also lit candles for Peter Monkhouse, 50, an advertising executive with three children from Headingley, Leeds, and Leslie Gray, 43, a solicitor from Tuxford, Nottinghamshire.

Yesterday Mr Prescott talked of strengthening the law of corporate manslaughter, a move that many victims of earlier tragedies have repeatedly sought. Any new legislation, however, could not be applied retrospectively.

Mr Prescott said the Government was consulting all the parties concerned. He was waiting to see what recommendations the Cullen inquiry into the Southall and Paddington rail crashes would make on the matter. "I hope by the spring of next year I will have them," he said. "And I hope that the Hatfield inquiry will have been completed to give him [Lord Cullen] further information on the matter of the culture of safety in the industry."