State to 'reprivatise' rail network in South

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The Independent Online

The government was accused yesterday of having a "dogmatic obsession" with privatisation after admitting that it would hand back one of Britain's busiest commuter rail networks to a private operator, however well it was run by the state.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), which took over train services in the South-east after stripping the French company Connex of its franchise, said it would hand it back to a private company "come what may" .

The Government's refusal to countenance the long-term takeover of any train operation was revealed at a meeting of the Commons Select Committee on Transport on 5 November. Tom Brake, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, asked Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA, whether he would be prepared to keep operating rail services in the South-east if it was proved that his organisation was doing it cheaper and more efficiently than any potential private sector operator.

Mr Bowker said: "I do not believe it is a circumstance that will arise. The policy is that train operating companies are private companies."

Mr Brake accused the authority and the Government of adopting an "obsessive dogmatism" over privatisation. He said: "It seems bizarre that it doesn't matter how much more efficient it is under SRA control, they will always take the risk of allowing a private operator to take responsibility for it."

The SRA took responsibility for train services in Kent and Sussex on 9 November. The authority intends to pass the operation back to the private sector in early 2005.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT rail union, said: "The millions currently going into the operation should be used to improve services for commuters in Kent and Sussex. But it seems the SRA is just fattening it up again, so that it can be handed over to another profit-hungry privateer."