Row erupts over rail cuts

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Indy Politics

Transport Correspondent

A last-ditch attempt is being made to save three sleeper services - including the London to Fort William train - and all Motorail services which British Rail yesterday announced are to be axed, provoking fierce criticism.

A row has erupted behind the scenes between John Swift, the rail regulator, and Roger Salmon, the franchising director, over the latter's announcement that the services would no longer be eligible for subsidy.

The argument is a test run for what is likely to be a series of similar disputes once rail privatisation gets under way next year.

Mr Swift wrote to Mr Salmon a couple of weeks ago to ask for clarification over the decision to withdraw support for the services, but was not satisfied with Mr Salmon's reply and has written to him again. Mr Swift expects to make a statement at the end of the month.

The services scheduled to be cut are the Fort William sleeper, the Carlisle service, which will be served by one of the remaining trains stopping there, and the Plymouth to Glasgow and Edinburgh train. All Motorail services will also end, leaving only two sleeper trains, which will each split into half to serve Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

The cuts in services were first outlined by Mr Salmon late last year, but at present he does not have the power to stop BR using its subsidy to pay for them. However, BR, which has been trying for a long time to cut its sleeper services, has taken the cue from Mr Salmon by officially announcing the cuts yesterday.

It claims this will save £7m per year and that each passenger on the sleeper to and from Fort William is subsidised to the tune of £180 each. This does not include the track access fees charged by Railtrack which would raise subsidy to more than £450 each.

The figures are disputed by the Friends of the West Highland Line which issued statistics suggesting that the service needed only a subsidy of £43 per passenger on the Fort William service and even less if there were a marketing campaign to improve its use. The campaign's spokesman, Adrian Quine, said: "We have based these figures on prices given to us by Railtrack and other parts of the railway. They have been validated by Professor Bill Bradshaw, the adviser on rail matters to the transport committee."

Brian Wilson, Labour's industry spokesman, said Railtrack was charging £17.5m this year for the five sleeper services and will charge only £1m less for the two services this year.

In the Commons, the Prime Minister was accused of a "grotesque breach of faith" over the issue. Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrat MP for Ross, Cromarty and Skye, demanded a government statement on the withdrawal of the Fort William service. He said an all-party group of MPs had been promised meetings to discuss the matter with Mr Major and Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, but these had not taken place.