Parliament and Politics: BR chairman concerned at future safety

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SIR BOB Reid, the chairman of British Rail, has expressed concern about the safety procedures to be adopted for the network in proposals to be announced next week in a government White Paper on the privatisation of BR.

Sir Bob has raised questions about safety in confidential meetings with John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport.

Under the privatisation plans, BR is to be made the track authority responsible for infrastructure covering track and signalling, which will include safety.

But a new rail regulator is to be set up to handle the award of franchises to private operators who win contracts to run services on BR lines.

The rail regulator will be responsible for ensuring that the winners of the franchises carry out their contracts. The contracts will have safety procedures written into them, but BR, as the track authority, will need assurances that safety will not be compromised, and that it receives sufficient funds to maintain high standards on the network.

Safety inspections will be carried out by the existing safety inspectorate, which is a part of the Health and Safety Executive.

Privatisation of BR was promised in the Tory election manifesto but the White Paper will disappoint Thatcherite Tories who wanted a complete sell-off of BR assets.

It will also mark a setback for John Major who has been forced to compromise over his wish to revive the former private regional railways. He has had to concede that the White Paper may revive the spirit, but it will not bring back the livery of the old regional railways.

The White Paper is expected to take a more gradualist approach, foreshadowing the sale of BR in three sectors: the retail services, including car parks, terminals and catering, will be offered first to potential franchise companies. The White Paper will offer the hope of the franchise to services being taken over by private companies, but in practice, there is little prospect of any radical change.

With the recession, BR believes private companies will be wary of offering to take over the franchise for running services. BR losses, which escalated from pounds 11m to pounds 144.7m, although partly caused by a slump in property sales, will act as a warning to potential bidders.

The White Paper will also guarantee the continuation of public subsidies to ensure the loss-making commuter and country services are continued. Government sources said criticising the failure to sell all the assets of BR was missing the point. The privatisation of BR through franchising the services would inject a new spirit of enterprise from the private sector.

(Photograph omitted)