True stories from the Great Railway Disaster; No 34: so competition is a good thing?

A weekly chronicle of the absurdities caused by the Government's privatisation programme
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PASSENGERS at Denmark Hill in south London may be confused as to why, every half- hour, they have two trains to central London within three minutes of each other and then none for 27 minutes.

Graham Larkbey is secretary of a south London rail passengers' association. For years his group campaigned to have the peak-hours-only service along the Peckham Rye-Victoria corridor extended to run during the day and eventually, a few years ago, they succeeded.

The service is run by Network SouthCentral, one of the 25 train-operating companies being prepared for privatisation, but South Eastern, a rival company, spotted what it thought was a market gap and launched its own Victoria-Peckham Rye-Lewisham-Dartford service.

While Mr Larkbey was pleased to see such a service introduced, he was worried that it affected NSC's Victoria-London Bridge service, especially as South Eastern's does not serve as many intermediate stations. And, as Mr Larkbey put it, "Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill have a most ill-balanced service pattern, with two Victoria trains within minutes of each other followed by a long gap". South Eastern refused to retime its trains to provide a more regular service.

Unhappy about South Eastern's response, Mr Larkbey wrote to the Rail Regulator, John Swift, the man appointed to look after the interests of passengers. Mr Swift's reply said: "I have a duty, amongst other things, to exercise my functions in the manner I consider best fitted to protect the interests of rail users. However, I have no statutory power to require BR, or any of its train-operating companies, to maintain or provide particular services."

Given that one of Mr Swift's specific tasks is the regulation of competition, Mr Larkbey's response is: "Faced with this response, one can only ask, what is the rail regulator for?"