Privatising railway network 'will take 12 years': No policy U-turn on BR, MacGregor tells MPs - Stringent working standards to be imposed on franchisers - Labour to focus on rail issue

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PRIVATISING passenger services across the whole of Britain's railway network will take about 12 years, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, said in the House of Commons yesterday.

Though Mr MacGregor denied charges of a policy U-turn, his admission that the franchising process will stretch into the next decade underlines the difficulties the Government has encountered in devising a way to honour its election pledge to sell BR.

Responding to a Labour-initiated debate on his rail plan, Mr MacGregor said the Prime Minister had been 'entirely right' to describe it as 'semi-privatisation' because passenger services were not being sold but franchised.

'BR's freight monopoly will end. The track and signalling will remain in public ownership, though in the long term privatisation of that is not ruled out. There is not a shred of policy which is dead and buried and not a shred of U- turn on this.'

John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, predicted privatisation would lead to a doubling of fares, more bureaucracy, lower safety standards, less investment in rolling stock and reduced services in rural areas.

'I believe you can have a good publicly operated railway. I don't suggest we have achieved that, but it will be much more difficult if you turn it into a privatised railway system.'

Robert Adley, Conservative chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said separation of responsibility for control of track and signalling from the operation of trains was 'a potential disaster'. Accusing Mr MacGregor of acting without first analysing Britain's transport problems, Mr Adley said the Government was operating to a political timetable 'based on purely considerations with the wish to get some paint on trains by the end of 1994 so that we can say 'Look aren't we doing jolly well'.

'If this is achieved it will be irrelevant to the operation of the vast majority of railway services in this country. But if it is done at the cost of undermining the integrity of the network then this Conservative Party will have a very heavy price to pay.'

The privatisation process is due to get under way in spring or summer 1994 when Mr MacGregor expects between four and seven passenger service franchises to be granted to private operators. The transport department reckons services across the country could be split into some 40 franchises.

Mr MacGregor's very gradual approach was highlighted as he cited Germany as a country following the Government's example and moving to privatise its monolithic nationalised railway industry. When Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, shouted that it would be phased over 12 years, the Secretary of State replied: 'Our time-scale to complete our whole privatisation process will be about the same.'

Challenged by Stephen Day, Conservative MP for Cheadle, and Brian Wilson, a Labour transport spokesman, about the future of rural rail services, Mr MacGregor said subsidies would continue for a large number of socially necessary rural and commuter services. Would-be franchisees would be able to bid for subsidies, thereby ensuring a competitive element. But he added: 'You cannot give a guarantee for all time . . . that would not be taking account of economic and commercial realities.'

Where there was very low demand for a service and a proposal was put forward for closure, it would be subject to an examination on similar lines to existing procedures, Mr MacGregor said.

A Labour motion opposing privatisation of the railways was defeated by 309 votes to 270.