Mawhinney tries to defuse row over trains

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The Independent Online
The publication of a key document setting out plans for the sale of rail tickets after privatisation has been delayed after government ministers became embarrassed over details which leaked out over the weekend.

The 30-page consultation paper, "Ticket retailing at stations", was last night being redrafted by the Office of the Rail Regulator after an earlier version appeared to show that network-wide tickets would be available for sale at only 300 of the 2,500 stations on the network. It was to have been published today but will now be issued later in the week. Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, told the BBC Today programme yesterday morning, in an effort to defuse the row, that he had the power to issue guidance to the Rail Regulator over such matters as through ticketing, which means he could overturn any unpopular rules drawn up by the Regulator.

The Rail Regulator, John Swift, will have the dual role of protecting the interests of both passengers and the train operators once the rail privatisation process gets properly underway later this year or early in 1996. His paper on ticket retailing is the culmination of a long debate within the industry over the extent to which the regulator needs to impose rules to ensure that the public is able to obtain tickets at most stations.

Labour immediately criticised the consultation paper and the party's transport spokesman, Michael Meacher, is drawing up plans for a wider attack on rail privatisation.

A group of senior Labour MPs want the party leader, Tony Blair, to commit Labour to renationalising Railtrack if it is sold before the next election by pledging to buy back the shares at the offer price, but Mr Blair, in a press conference yesterday, backed away from making this commitment.

Last night, the head of one of the 25 train operating units which are due to be franchised out warned ministers not to back down in the face of the criticism of Mr Swift's plans. "With 25 different companies, it will be very difficult and expensive to ensure that up-to-date information is available at all stations. If the Government backs down over this as it has done over other issues, it will make taking on franchises even more unattractive and there will be less chance of finding bidders," he sa id.