Rail cuts rekindle privatisation fear

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DIRECT InterCity services between London and Blackpool are to be dropped, British Rail confirmed yesterday. Four weekday trains between Birmingham and London are also being withdrawn.

Ivor Warburton, InterCity west coast director, said that with 90 per cent of seats empty on the leg between Blackpool and Preston, direct services were no longer commercially viable. 'The passenger volume is low and the cost of changing locomotives for the short section from Preston is high,' he said.

The decision, part of InterCity west coast's review of services, will rekindle fears that BR is being forced to cut its InterCity network before privatisation. A BR document last January said there would be no alternative to closing down many peripheral InterCity services if lines were to be profitable under private ownership. It listed 16 vulnerable services.

InterCity profits slumped to pounds 2m in 1991-92 from almost pounds 50m in 1990-91 and BR as a whole recorded a pounds 144.7m loss.

The five trains running daily between Blackpool and London will no longer run from 28 September. Passengers to Blackpool will have to change at Preston and use Regional Railways services, substantially increasing journey time.

The Birmingham trains that will stop running next month are, from Monday to Friday, the 08.03 and 15.10 to London and the 09.53 to Birmingham. The 20.10 to Wolverhampton via Birmingham from Monday to Thursday will also end.

Mr Warburton said the recession had led to a decrease in passenger numbers. The one train every 15 minutes peak-time service and half-hourly trains off-peak Monday to Saturday will not be affected.

Next May BR is to withdraw its daily direct InterCity trains between London and Lincoln, Market Rasen, Grimsby and Cleethorpes because not enough passengers are using the service. Last May direct InterCity services from London to Shrewsbury and Telford were halted.

The InterCity service from Dover to Liverpool and the Manchester and Glasgow services to Gatwick and Brighton are among other routes thought to be at risk. John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, warned of further cuts leaving communities isolated. He feared a 'secret pact' between John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, and Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, who last month disclosed plans to run private rail services using refurbished BR rolling stock.

'Network services are being sacrificed to allow Virgin to play trains at profitable route times . . . This is a perfect example of Virgin cherry-picking services,' he said.

Mr Branson denied any secret pact with the Government. 'We would agree with Mr Prescott that places such as Shrewsbury, Teesside and Blackpool deserve better, but he knows well that these cuts have been planned for years.'

Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the main rail union, said: 'The Government's claim that privatisation will improve quality and provide a wider choice of services has a very hollow ring.'