Private-sector rail plan under consideration

A PLAN for private companies to improve the track on the west coast main line is being given 'serious consideration' by the Government, writes Christian Wolmar.

Roger Freeman, Minister for Public Transport, said yesterday that he was trying to find the right formula to pursue an offer by a group of three companies - GEC Alsthom, Balfour Beatty and Trafalgar House - to upgrade the line between London Euston and Glasgow which is in a poor state of repair.

Last summer, British Rail had to shelve plans to spend pounds 800m on trains and improvements to the track and signalling because of a shortage of cash.

The consortium approached the Government after last year's Autumn Statement in which the Chancellor said that he was keen to attract private sector money into infrastructure projects. The plan involves the consortium spending pounds 400m to improve the line. It would recoup its investment by charging for use of the line.

Mr Freeman said the plans were at an early stage and two criteria would have to be met: 'There would have to be competition; we couldn't just negotiate with one consortium. And some of the risk would have to be passed on to the private sector.'

He said they could charge by the train, or by passenger and ton of freight. He accepted that fares might have to rise to pay for the investment.