Tory grassroots signal fears on future of rail

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RANK AND FILE Tories have expressed fears for the future of rail services under government plans to part-privatise BR.

Their concern has surfaced on October's Conservative conference agenda, signalling a testing time for John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr MacGregor's White Paper plans to franchise passenger services to private sector operators, plus grassroots concerns about the environment and the need for a strategic public transport policy, have ensured that nearly half of the three dozen motions on transport issues include criticism of the Government.

Robert Adley, Conservative MP for Christchurch, the recently- appointed chairman of the transport select committee, said: 'My impression is that there is more apprehension than enthusiasm in the party at grassroots level.'

Despite genuine dissatisfaction with British Rail, underneath the 'hype and enthusiasm for political ambition' there was an awareness of the relationship between investment and public service, he said.

Mr Adley, a railway and public transport enthusiast tipped to become a thorn in the Government's flesh, hopes to widen the traditional range of interested parties who will give evidence to the committee when consultation on last month's White Paper ends on 1 October.

The aim is to include foreign railways - two have already agreed to attend - users of particular lines and recently-retired railwaymen who can speak from experience without fear of losing their jobs.

Despite general acceptance of the principle of privatisation the motions urge 'sufficient continued public funding' to give a better service, reprieves for threatened services between London and the North-west and Great Grimsby, and 'urgent' measures to improve public transport between provincial towns and major cities.

Another warns against breaking up the rail network 'thus benefiting urban areas at the expense of rural communities'. A number call for greater use of rail freight services and better public transport to alleviate 'growing and serious' problems on the roads. There are also renewed calls for the completion of the Jubilee Line to Docklands, even if this requires the project to be underwritten by the Government.

Mr Adley said the Prime Minister had reversed the trend of cutting investment but described last month's White Paper proposals as a 'hangover from the past' that seemed to be dictated by party politics rather than knowledge of the rail system. He said he had already heard from a variety of people who were not normally 'agitatory' bodies. 'The general view is concern rather than enthusiasm,' he added.

The Central Transport Consultative Committee, the rail industry's watchdog, has already warned the Government that privatisation alone will not improve services without a substantial injection of cash for modernisation.

Mr MacGregor's stated belief that there is continuing public demand for bigger and better roads also comes under fire, with one motion considering 'the construction of further new motorways to be so potentially environmentally destructive that the Department of Transport should consider the environmental impact of planned new motorways with a view to their deletion from the road programme, unless the case for their construction proves overwhelming'.