Watchdog condemns rail sell-off 'pantomime'

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The Independent Online

Transport Correspondent

It was supposed to be a quiet departure into oblivion but the old soldier did not play the game. Instead, Major General Lennox Napier, who yesterday left his job as chairman of the rail watch-dog, the Central Rail Users' Consultative Council, caused a political furore with his fiercest attack yet on rail privatisation, provoking Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, into an angry response.

His criticisms came as the country's leading train manu-facturer announced further cuts because of the dearth of orders from British Rail and as figures revealed that trains on main lines were running slower than before the privatisation process started.

Maj-Gen Napier likened the rail sell-off to a pantomine. He said: "So I end rather looking at a pantomime. Pantomimes should have a happy ending. At the moment there isn't a Prince Charming called finance or investment yet in the script."

He cited the Commons transport committee which said that the railways would cost an extra pounds 700m in subsidy a year. While he was not opposed to rail privatisation, he said : "This Government was always going to introduce rail privatisation but if they could go back in time I think they would go about it in a different way. Privatisation could work, but it's just a matter of whether it will work better for passengers. There is a great deal of uncertainty around. There is no clear indication that we are going to have a high level of sustained investment in the railways."

Maj-Gen Napier said there was insufficient investment in the railways to ensure that even present levels of services and standards were maintained.

Sir George said: "Far from undermining the railways, rail privatisation offers the opportunity for stronger investment and a better service for passengers which the Major General himself has been campaigning for over the last 10 years.''

A rail industry source suggested that the general's recent outspokenness was causing problems in finding a successor: "They thought Lennox would be a poodle but he has stirred it up. It's difficult to see how they can find anyone to replace him."

In further bad news for privatisation, ABB Transportation announced 123 job losses because of lack of orders and the need to cut costs.

A spokeswoman said every effort would be made to seek volunteers but the company could not rule out compulsory redundancies.

An analysis by Barry Doe, a rail industry consultant, for the BBC's Here and Now, found that BR's InterCity services are getting slower. Four in five InterCity journeys take longer than they did in 1989, according to Mr Doe who believes it is the first time in the history of the railways that trains have gone slower than in the past.

But he denied that journey times were being padded out to avoid compensation being paid out under the Passenger's Charter; the longer journeys were simply to improve reliability of arrival times.

A former train crew manager, David Smith, told the programme: "The motive is to enable the train operating companies to massage their statistics to show their performance in a better light."