Tory MPs voice fears over plan to privatise BR

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Conservative-dominated Commons Select Committee on Transport is so alarmed by the Government's rail privatisation plans that it is pushing for a change of heart by publicly setting out its concerns.

The influential cross-party committee of backbench MPs is taking the unusual step of issuing an interim report early in the new year because the evidence it has been given over the past two months has been so overwhelmingly critical of the Government proposals.

The committee's full report is unlikely to be ready until Easter, well after the publication of the Bill, which is due in January, but the members of the Tory dominated committee felt they wanted their views made public in a last- ditch effort to avoid what the Conservative chairman of the committee, Robert Adley, has said is an 'impending disaster'.

Coming immediately after the highly critical comments on privatisation at the weekend by Sir Bob Reid, British Rail chairman, the committee's decision will fuel growing opposition to the plans.

The 11 committee members, who include a former transport minister, Peter Bottomley, have heard evidence for the past two months from all sectors of the industry and key figures such as Lord Marsh - a former transport minister and chairman of British Rail - who was shocked by the 'appallingly low quality' of the proposals. One committee member told the Independent: 'We want the Government to be made aware of the big problems they face in privatising the railways so they can study it before the Bill is published.'

The interim report will highlight concerns raised by several witnesses such as the plight of the railway equipment supply industry, which is facing total collapse because of the investment hiatus before private operators start to take over lines, probably in 1994 or 1995. The committee is also worried over the potential loss of network benefits, such as the availability of all tickets at every station, and the sharp decline in freight which is being priced off the rails.

It will also focus on the apparently irreconcilable contradiction between franchising out sections of the railway and allowing open access to new operators on the same lines. Franchisees are unlikely to bid for lines if they face competition from other operators.

Mr Adley refused to comment on whether the committee was producing a report but said he had written to John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, outlining an alternative plan for privatisation.

In the letter, he says: 'Experimentation, on a national scale, with an essential piece of the nation's transport infrastructure, is fraught with potential problems.'

He is suggesting an alternative plan, not unlike that favoured by John Major, the Prime Minister, based on regional areas rather than on a separation of the track from the infrastructure. Operating companies covering each area would be created and eventually they could be privatised through 'negotiation, tender or stock exchange flotation'. He wants the restructuring to proceed before any privatisation.

Mr Adley is also known to have seen several senior Cabinet figures, including the Prime Minister, as he is concerned to emphasise to his Tory colleagues the potential risks - such as large job losses and widespread cuts in services - of implementing the Government's proposals.

Leading article, page 16