Sir: Lord Kirkwood's rejection of "ghost" trains as a ploy to evade statutory line closure procedures ("Sleeper reprieve may slow privatisation", 10 May) is another blow to companies expecting formal invitations to tender for the first three franchises shortly. His ruling appears to move the goalposts in three directions at once.
First, British Rail has in the past got away unchallenged with dozens of "technical" closures of short link lines, including at least one used by the Fort William sleeper. Section 37 of the Railways Act 1993 makes specific provision for "minor closures" of this nature to be exempt from the procedures, but was so badly drafted as to fail the first legal test.
Second, Lord Kirkwood has ordered continuation of a 570-mile service between London and Fort William in order to keep "open" three fragments of track around Glasgow. This means that a future Great Western franchisee, having been refused subsidy by the franchising director last December for the London-Fishguard boat trains, might now have to continue running them at his own expense because their withdrawal would "close" a mile of track at Carmarthen.
Third, franchisees who take over one of several existing "ghost" trains, as on the Croxley Green branch, might suddenly be ordered to provide a proper service appropriate to a commuter railway, again without compensating subsidy.
In recent days, the morale of prospective franchisees has been sapped by threats to ban anticipated fare increases - the measure which forced many British-owned railways in Latin America into bankruptcy - and to enforce new limits on standing passengers which could cost commuter lines dearly. How much more can they take?
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