Government faces clash on BR plans

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THE GOVERNMENT will clash with a cross-party Commons select committee next week when the Ministry of Transport hopes to publish its controversial Bill to commercialise British Rail passenger services.

The Select Committee on Transport, chaired by a Tory MP, Robert Adley, will publish an interim report challenging key aspects of the Government's plans, including the safety of the network.

It agreed to rush out the report before the Government published the Bill, underlining the continuing conflict between Mr Adley's committee and John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Government hopes that its BR privatisation paving Bill will receive Royal Assent early next week, enabling it to publish the main Bill by the end of the week. John Major and Mr MacGregor have denied the Bill marks a retreat. Its publication will underline their determination to have some services under private livery by the next general election. But the Government has abandoned the privatisation rhetoric in the face of continuing doubts about the practicality of finding buyers for BR passenger services.

The Bill will end BR's monopoly and allow private companies to run passenger services through franchising. It will create a new company, Railtrack, to own and operate track and signalling, and set up an independent regulator to protect passenger interests, supervise access to track and oversee charges to private operators for the use of the track. It will also enable rail freight and parcel businesses to be sold off.

The committee's report will not make recommendations but will raise questions about how the Government is carrying out its manifesto commitment to privatise BR. The committee will ask who will pay for the proposed new regulatory controls to ensure safety standards are maintained after some passenger services are leased to private companies.

The Government accepts that even after franchising some services, the network will continue to need public subsidies. Ministers will be asked for assurances that the network will be safeguarded.