Letter : The other side of the tracks

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Your piece on railway privatisation failed to put the issue in its proper perspective ("The great train robbery", Review, 26 May). Although the Government has undoubtedly made a hash of the job, the railways could not be allowed to remain in the public sector. The nationalised railways are a story of almost 50 years of waste and incompetence. To list just a few of the highlights:

l During the 1950s, new steam locomotives were delivered almost straight to the scrapyards.

l The diesels which replaced them cost six times as much and many were grossly unreliable, lasting little more than a decade. Many of the better designs were scrapped prematurely for being "non-standard".

l Engineering costs were allowed to spiral out of control. In 1950, an inter-city passenger coach cost around pounds 5,000: by the late 1980s, this had risen to about pounds 600,000, eight times as much in real terms, with a significant decline in comfort.

l pounds 400m worth of new rolling stock is currently languishing in sidings because new traction systems are liable to interfere with signalling circuits and have to be subject to prolonged testing procedures.

l Thousands of acres of valuable land have been under-used or allowed to stand derelict.

As for the arguments against giving subsidies to private train operating companies, there can be no more objection to this than to grants for public operators. Train operation gives rise to external benefits which cannot be captured through the fare box. These external benefits ultimately settle in land values; rents and property prices rise to reflect the advantages of improved access. It is just that those who provide the service should have access to some of this value through a contribution from the public purse.

Although the current structure of the privatised railways is indefensible, it is likely that a process of rationalisation will take place as a result of initiatives from within the industry.

Henry Law

Brighton, E Sussex

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