Rail watchdog fears lack of investment: Concern over infrastructure funding after privatisation

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GLOOM was yesterday cast over the prospects for train services after the privatisation of British Rail when the statutory passengers' group said that the high levels of investment needed to maintain or improve the network were unlikely to be forthcoming.

Major General Lennox Napier, the chairman of the Central Transport Consultative Committee, sketched a bleak picture of an industry already limping along through years of underfunding.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, launching the committee's last annual report before it becomes a regulatory body next year with the start of privatisation, appeared to lend weight to the fears by saying the Treasury did not have an endless supply of money to pour into rail services.

In spite of Mr MacGregor's assertion that the Government had invested record amounts in the railways in the past year, the committee said most of the money had gone into safety and high-profile areas like Channel tunnel projects and rolling stock for Network SouthEast.

Many other projects had been postponed, creating a build-up that could lead to an increase in journey times as speed restrictions were applied on sections of track closed for repairs. 'I am alarmed by concerns being expressed by British Rail engineers about the age of rails, sleepers, ballast and signalling,' Maj Gen Napier said. 'Infrastructure requires continual attention, renewal and repair . . . The gap between the funding available and what BR needs is in danger of becoming unbridgeable.'

Maj Gen Napier said repairs to about 15,000 bridges would take BR about 800 years to complete at the present pace.

Travellers' complaints in most areas increased over the previous year, rising by 13 per cent overall. But the committee was sanguine about the rises, attributing most to growing public awareness because of the Passenger's Charter.

This was supported by punctuality and reliability figures for InterCity and Regional Railways' services, which improved slightly or declined only marginally on last year's, with a few notable exceptions. Punctuality was 'dismal' on the Kent Coast and Thames routes.

However, the substantial decline in BR's finances for the third successive year, with the subsequent moves to cut services and shed staff, did not augur well for the future.

'There are two overriding requirements if privatisation is to have any chance of success,' Maj Gen Napier said. 'There is a need for a very high level of investment from one source or another for many years ahead, which at present seems unlikely to happen.'

He also said it was vital that all the existing advantages of one co- ordinated network be maintained, with facilities for through-ticketing, national timetabling and information systems and railcards for discounted fares should be maintained.

While acknowledging that the Government still appeared reluctant to guarantee these crucial elements, he was hopeful that it might yet introduce such measures.