and BARRIE CLEMENT
The privatisation of Railtrack is to be pushed forward by Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, in spite of rising opposition to the break-up of British Rail.
Signalling the go-ahead at the Conservative Party conference next week, Sir George will in effect challenge Labour to find the money to buy it back. "We are talking about large chunks of money," a Whitehall source said.
Labour hopes its threats to take back Railtrack into public ownership will stop its privatisation. The value of Railtrack, which owns the track system, has fallen from an estimated pounds 4bn, when privatisation was first proposed, to about pounds 1.5bn.
The Government is committed to privatising the rail network before the next general election and Sir George will make it clear it will not be postponed any longer.
The shadow transport secretary, Michael Meacher, yesterday warned prospective private investors: "If you want to buy a pig in a poke in all those circumstances it's up to you. But don't come crying to me when it all ends in tears." Opening a debate on transport at the party conference, Mr Meacher said: "We are going to stop this privatisation in its tracks."
The Government's determination to press ahead with rail privatisation in spite of widespread opposition continued with an employee buy-out yesterday for pounds 11.5m of the BR sandwich business.
The move to accelerate privatisation will intensify the pressure on Tony Blair from trade unions to spell out his pledge to the Labour Party conference that there would be a "publicly owned and publicly accountable'' railway system under a Labour government.
The Labour leader's commitment caused confusion at the conference yesterday over how far Mr Blair's pledge committed Labour to renationalising the rail system. It was thought Mr Blair was proposing to make the 25 operating companies publicly accountable and to limit the promise of public ownership to Railtrack. A Labour government could allow private franchised services to run for the life of their contracts, up to seven years, on publicly owned track.
But Mr Meacher went further yesterday, refusing to rule out the possibility that the 25 operating companies responsible for running services could be brought back under public ownership. Mr Meacher said the options included a buy-back of shares; the issue of Rail Bonds; or the use of a "golden share" to secure a controlling interest.
The RMT transport union, Aslef, the train drivers' union and TSSA, the white collar association, are lobbying Mr Meacher before the completion of his rail privatisation policy document in November to make the commitment to public ownership more explicit for Railtrack and the operating companies.
The left-led RMT, the biggest rail union, believes that the whole of the industry should be renationalised with immediate effect. Aslef is arguing that Railtrack and the passenger and freight train operators should be taken back under public control and the Government should take a controlling interest in the companies which lease rolling stock. Drivers' leaders accept the train operators may have to remain in the private sector until the end of their contracts, but argue they should come under the control of a single national authority.
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