Vote threat to Tories as rail sell-off chief quits

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The Independent Online


The Government's troubled rail privatisation programme was plunged into further disarray yesterday by the resignation of Roger Salmon, the official in charge of the sale of passenger services.

Mr Salmon's announcement that he is to leave in October without another job in sight, 13 months before his contract expires, came days ahead of the publication next Monday of the prospectus for the pounds 1.8bn flotation of Railtrack.

Labour yesterday seized on the decision as evidence of mounting chaos in the programme to sell-off Britain's rail services. Clare Short, Labour's transport spokeswoman, said: "The rats are leaving the sinking ship. I am not surprised. I am even pleased. It is another symptom that the process of privatisation is falling apart."

Labour is threatening to defeat the Government next Wednesday by forcing a vote in the Commons over the privatisation of British Rail.

There were suggestions in the City that Mr Salmon had not found it easy to deal with frictions with a succession of secretaries of state on the mechanics and timetable of the privatisation. One source said that while there had been no outright rows he might have stayed on longer if relations with the Government had been better.

Labour also believes that Mr Salmon was disheartened by the unpopularity of the job, and Ms Short claimed he was leaving before a Labour government implements its plans to abolish the franchise director's job. That threat will make it hard to recruit a senior successor.

Mr Salmon rejected suggestions of difficulties with the current Secretary of State for Transport and said:"I get on extremely well with Sir George [Young] ... I cannot remember a single hard word between us in the nine months since he was appointed."

He said the targets he had set himself had been achieved and "the ship is sailing very well, and very fast". By the autumn, preparations for completion of the sales would be at an advanced stage. It was appropriate for the long-term health of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising to hand over to someone else, he added.

Mr Salmon, 50, confirmed that he had not found a new job and said he planned to take a holiday before deciding what to do. The announcement of his early departure, less than four years into his five-year term of office as director of passenger franchising, was forced on the Government because under the rules for share sales it will have to be disclosed in the prospectus.

Mr Salmon first told Sir George of his intention to leave last December. No successor has yet been found.

The public acknowledgement that he is leaving before the sales are complete could hardly have come at a worse time for the privatisation programme, because only two of the 25 train-operating franchises have so far been let and another two awarded subject to contract. By the time Mr Salmon leaves nearly half the franchises are still likely to be awaiting buyers.

He said he would be willing to wait longer than October to ensure a smooth handover if the appointment of a successor could not be made in time. His replacement would have to be able to "stand up to the Secretary of State as well as work with him".