Letter: Private freight on the right tracks

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The Independent Online
Sir: The warning given by Sir Bob Reid, the chairman of British Rail, on the Government's plans to privatise the railways (report, 21 December) pours petrol on the fire that is already raging. But the real danger is that in the general confusion we lose sight of one enormous opportunity which is there, right now, for us to seize.

Private freight operators are poised to make a quantum leap in the transfer of freight from road to rail, taking millions of heavy lorry journeys off the roads. The private sector is well developed in rail freight, owning wagons, locos and terminals and offering forwarding and other added-value services; private sector management combined with the commercial discipline of a competitive market could bring substantial economies to the rail mode, both in operations and infrastructure provision, as high as 75 per cent in some areas.

Open access to the tracks for private operators, combined with charges based on the marginal cost of freight using a primarily passenger network, could transform a moribund institution into a smart, expanding, commercial operation making a cost-effective contribution to our future transport needs.

More than a year has passed since Malcolm Rifkind asked Sir Bob to encourage private rail freight operations, and it is now apparent that BR is placing obstacles in the way of this far-sighted plan. In the meantime, BR's freight sectors follow a 'cherry- picking' policy, lining up the profitable traffics to be retained in their management buy-outs, discarding on to the roads many traffics which private operators know they could carry viably given the opportunity.

Without the proposed legislation we will see the demise of rail freight (except for a few limited markets of little relevance to freight in general) and all that this implies in terms of congested roads and environmental damage. The problems of privatising the passenger railway must not be allowed to result in a tragic loss of the huge benefits offered by rail freight.

CHRIS NICHOLS

Secretary

Rail Freight Group (RUG)

Oxford

22 December

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