LETTERS : Highland sleepers a vital link

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AL McCrystal's report, "Highlands wake to danger of the vanishing sleeping car" (1 January), though welcome coverage for an important issue, underestimates the campaign to save the West Highland sleeper. The rail franchise director's announcement came shortly before Christmas and Hogmanay, a period not best suited for the civil disobedience Mr McCrystal seems to have expected in Fort William. But festive preoccupation should not be mistaken for indifference - the telephone wires have certainly be en buzzing in Lochaber, and it's a fair bet that the Transport Secretary's January postbag will be unseasonally heavy.

The West Highland economy has been as badly hit by recession as any in the UK, with income from tourism for many businesses, including my family's, already down over a fifth since 1990. Railways are of crucial importance to the Highland economy, as was shown by the local enterprise board's recent report on railway usage, which found that of the 6,400 rail users interviewed, "over half the visitors would not have been making a comparable journey by other means of transport", and nearly half would not hav e been in the Highlands at all.

The baffling thing about the rail franchise director's decision is that it shows so little faith in privatisation to do any of the things the Government claims for it. If it really believes that privatisation can cut costs and improve service, why not give the new spirit of entrepreneurship a chance to prove itself by offering a reducing level of subsidy for at least a seasonal service?

Axing the service altogether is the counsel of despair - both for the potential of privatisation to improve the railways and for the West Highland economy. Many in Lochaber and the south will resist, being much less fatalistic than your reporter implies.

Hugh Raven Oban, Argyll

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