Leading Article: Switch the points and we'll cheer

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The Independent Online
The United Kingdom has a population of about 56 million people. Out of this number, how many sincerely and strongly support the Government's present scheme to privatise Britain's railways? Do we hear 20 million? Do we hear 10 million? Do we hear 5 million, 1 million, 500,000? No, not even that. The only voices that shout support - though the shouting has turned into a defiant murmur of late - come from John Major and the unlucky man he has charged with making rail privatisation work, his Transport Secretary, John MacGregor. There are, of course, other figures simmering quietly in the sidings and making encouraging poops and whistles: Robert Key, junior transport minister and the Mr Toad of motorways; the other Mr Toads in the Department of Transport; Sarah Hogg, heading (still) the Prime Minister's policy unit; the men from the planet Vulcan, John Redwood and Michael Portillo; a few backbencher backwoodspersons (though, these days, from a very remote back wood); and some British Rail managers who have seen what management buyouts can do, especially for managers. The figure in total might reach a few hundred if you throw in the Adam Smith Institute and its associated ideologues who have 'privatise' inscribed on their hearts, as 'Calais' was engraved on Queen Mary's.

The rest of us know that privatisation as it is currently envisaged will mean higher fares, fewer trains, axed lines - a bleak picture set within an administrative framework of mesmerising complexity and subsidy which does not even lower the cost of railways to the taxpayer, and cannot lower it unless we are prepared to live in a country in which rail transport has pretty well ceased to exist. This may be the Government's intention, which, for some reason, the Prime Minister imagines is without political risk. If so, Mr Major should do what he keeps assuring us he is doing. He should listen. And if he will not listen to the more predictable apostles of public transport, such as this newspaper, he could listen to voices which are usually sympathetic to the Tory party. For example:

The Daily Telegraph: 'If it is right to spend substantial public funds on new roads so that cars can travel ever more freely, it must also be right to spend public money on railways and other public transport alternatives so they provide a viable and attractive alternative to cars on roads. That, unfortunately, is the opposite of the Government's current policy . . .' (leading article, 25 August). 'The Government's current tactic seems to be to . . . carry on regardless with privatisation . . . It is possible that, by hook or by crook, the Government will be able to muster a majority in the Commons. But the passage of rail privatisation into law will be a hollow victory.' (leading article,

24 August).

The Times: 'The Government should swallow its prejudices and accept the Lords amendment allowing BR itself to compete for some . . . of the best franchises. The object of change must be better rail services, not ideological point-scoring. To exclude the one organisation in Britain which has experience of railways is absurd . . .' (leading article, 24 August).

The Evening Standard (London): 'What's privatisation for? Whom is it meant to benefit? If it means putting up fares, reducing services and introducing a whole new level of management bureaucracy in order to divide BR into shadow franchises, then the game's not worth the candle . . .' (Leading article, 23 August).

The Spectator: 'I do not believe what the railways need now is franchising, or unbundling, or reorganising, or restructuring. What they need is running . . . A railway system where the track, the operations and the rolling stock are all the responsibilities of different organisations, independent of each other, is a system with new things to go wrong built into it . . .' (Christopher Fildes, City column, 28 August).

THESE criticisms from the broad spectrum of the right in Britain are just as pungent as those from the centre and the left. So what should Mr Major do? William Deedes, writing in the Daily Telegraph of 17 August, has an answer. 'For something like six years this major upheaval has been looming over the railways. It has contributed to deterioration of the system and lower morale among those who work it. In my view, the measure lacks sufficient enthusiasm to drive it forward. It is a loser. The right action for the Prime Minister at his forthcoming party conference is to declare that . . . the Bill will be shelved. They would not only give him a standing ovation. They would be clambering on their chairs to cheer.'

Mr Deedes is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and a former Tory minister. Our case rests, unusually, on his perception and advice.