Waiting to take on the rail chiefs

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The Independent Online
Geoff Meekums, 64, a recently retired commuter from Edenbridge, in Kent, is one of the few passengers who will get to have their say.

"I am chairman of the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers' Association and I have travelled a lot by rail - I use Northern Spirit, GNER, Wales & West, South West Trains and Great Western Trains.

"The problem I have when I travel west from Edenbridge is the number of different railway companies. Since privatisation I have to kick my heels at Redhill and Reading when I used to only have to change at Reading. There is a lack of seamless rail travel. There are many examples of cross- country journeys where if a train is late, because the train operators are all separate companies, the other operator won't hold the connecting train. I think the Strategic Rail Authority needs to look at that with dispatch and vigour.

"Meanwhile, the line from Uckfield to Oxted is one of the last two remaining pieces of diesel track in the area now run by Connex. The rolling stock is made up of 40-year-old slam-door vehicles. My concern is the future of the line.

"Connex South Central put in a bid to extend their seven-year franchise which included electrifying the line and that would have brought in new stock. It was turned down by the Franchising Director because there were insufficient benefits. Their franchise expires in 2003 and we know that slam-door vehicles must be phased out or modified at a cost of pounds 10,000 a vehicle by 2003 - an estimated cost of pounds 2.5m. What is Connex's view on the slam-door stock when they have no guarantee of getting the franchise again? Connex is keen to resubmit but the question is: how do these time scales fit together? As soon as you embark on a modification programme you have to withdraw 10 per cent of your stock at any one time with all the cancellations and chaos that goes with it.

"John Prescott has said he is willing to extend some of the franchises but the question is - how long will Mr Prescott and the SRA take to deal with the issue of franchise renewal. I don't think Mr Prescott has the first idea of what he is trying to do. I believe that, like so many managers, he does not get out enough on the trains and go for a ride to learn what is going on."