Ridley says private rail network 'impossible'

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PLANS to privatise the railways hit further trouble yesterday when Lord Ridley, a former Secretary of State for Transport, said he thought the Government was embarking on an 'impossible' task.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, Lord Ridley launched an astonishingly strong attack on the concept of privatisation and questioned its feasibility by concluding 'it may never even happen'. He wrote: 'I do not believe it is possible to privatise the railways. Nor does the Government.'

Last week the Government conceded that the legislation would not be published until next year and that the first franchises were unlikely to be let out in April 1994 as previously announced.

The criticisms by Lord Ridley, ennobled after the April general election, will add to Tory backbenchers' fears that BR privatisation could result in large fare rises and cuts in services.

Lord Ridley listed a series of doubts about the Government's plans, which are to break up BR into between 30 or 40 franchises to be offered to the private sector and for there to be 'open access' for rival operators. He questioned whether it would be practical to have more than one company on a line and asked what would happen if a franchisee went bust.

He also doubted that any potential new operators would come forward. Reading the Government's proposals, he said: 'It is amazing how many fees and charges have to be 'agreed' between the private operator and the track authority. Given all these uncertainties, I doubt if many entrepreneurs will be tempted into this morass of risks.'

There were doubts, too, about the potential development of a second-hand market in rolling stock, a cornerstone of the Government's attempts to attract private investors. 'Trains' Lord Ridley wrote, 'are tailor-made to the track they are run on. So operators could lose all their capital if they lost their franchise'.

He said there was little scope for improving the service, except through investment requiring big fare increases or higher subsidies.