InterCity sell-off raises cuts fear plan prompts Rail cuts feared

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Fears that InterCity rail services could be cut drastically were raised yesterday when the first details of the rail franchising process were announced.

Roger Salmon, the franchising director, said he would only specify basic levels of service for InterCity trains which would broadly be hourly frequencies for most routes. Subsidy would be paid to operators to run these services but he said trains at other times would be dependent on the commercial decision of the new franchisees.

This immediately raised a question mark over the future of the half-hourly service between London to Birmingham. Some railway experts suggest that the marginal cost of running the extra trains will be greater than any commercial benefit but Mr Salmon dismissed this.

He said: "I am confident it will be commercially worthwhile for operators to run more trains than the minimum."

Mr Salmon postponed further controversy by delaying the publication of the minimum service levels on routes which are being put out to franchise until the new year. He stressed they would be "broadly" in line with the existing timetable but he was unableto say whether he would have sufficient subsidy at his disposal to pay for the services when he takes over the allocation of subsidy to the 25 train operating companies next April.

However, he raised another controversy by saying that he felt that BR should not be allowed to bid for franchises when he starts putting them out for tender next autumn. He said: "I do not think that new bidders would want to compete with BR or that MBOs[management buy-out teams] would want to compete with their own employer."The question of whether BR would be allowed to bid was the subject of a successful parliamentary rebellion by a group of Tory MPs last year.

Franchises would probably be for seven years but might be longer if companies were prepared to accept less subsidy in exchange for longer franchises. Mr Salmon refused to be drawn on the number of companies which had expressed interest in bidding for franchises "because the lawyers will not allow me to comment on this".

Mr Salmon was able to give a number of assurances on train services. He said that through tickets would be available on all journeys and except in certain limited cases such as the London to Gatwick route, tickets would be interchangeable and valid on all trains. He stressed that it would be possible to buy tickets to destinations throughout the network at all stations.

Young, senior and disabled person railcards would be mandatory, as specified in the legislation, as would London Travelcard. Operators had also agreed to continue with family and network cards.