Wrong type of dogma on the line: Rail privatisation is steaming ahead, but will be dangerous, damaging and ultimately unworkable, argues Brian Wilson

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the few privately owned freight locomotives ground to a halt the other day, at Frome in Somerset. It had hit debris spilled from a privately owned freight wagon and the line took three hours to clear. Five InterCity trains were diverted through Bristol, three local services cancelled and two freight trains delayed.

This is the kind of experience which railway workers quote as an example of problems which would have to be confronted daily if the railway break-up goes ahead. Such impediments to ideological certitude have, however, made little impact on those responsible for the Railways Bill, which returns to the House of Commons tomorrow.

As public hostility to rail privatisation mounts - a Telegraph/Gallup opinion poll yesterday suggested that 71 per cent of rail users now oppose privatisation - the question is whether enough MPs may be realistic enough to support some important safeguarding amend ments. But back to Frome.

Most of the inconvenienced passengers at Paddington and points west probably cursed British Rail and perhaps some even looked forward to privatisation; ironic indeed, given the true source of their frustrations. But try looking forward to realisation of the Government's plans.

First, BR would be left with no responsibility for clearing the track, which it will no longer own or maintain. That would be the job of Railtrack, which will own no trains for the purpose. The track-clearing capacity will have to be bought in, though one wonders how close to Frome such an 'AA service of the rails' is likely to be based.

Meanwhile, the lawyers would be getting to work since such incidents cost money. The track was damaged, so Railtrack - unsubsidised and under directions to operate commercially - would have a claim. So too would the locomotive owners, the delayed freight operators and the passenger franchisees - one for local services and another for InterCity. But against whom would they all claim?

The guidance of Roger Freeman, Minister for Public Transport, to the committee consider ing the Bill was: 'If the train operator is unable to run trains on the schedules and timetables as agreed, the operators will pursue Railtrack and say: 'You are legally responsible. I signed an access agreement and your neglect of the infrastructure is causing delays to my services.' ' And what, one wonders, will Railtrack say?

This random real-life example is a harbinger of the fragmentation and complexity to come. From next April, BR - whipping-boys for everything that goes wrong on the railways - will still be providing services, but own neither the trains, destined for leasing companies who will lease them back to BR, nor the tracks.

This is not a way to run a railway that has commended itself to any other country. I become increasingly convinced that, while privatisation of the railways is a dotty and dogma-driven policy, it is the fragmentation of the system which is most dangerous, damaging and ultimately unworkable.

During 33 sittings of the Standing Committee which considered the Railways Bill in detail, we searched repeatedly for the intellectual or even political justification for what is being done - particularly once the Government had abandoned the myth of competition through 'open access' for rival operators on the same tracks. Apart from platitudes about introducing the 'entrepreneurial flair' of private operators, we are still in the dark.

There are still many unanswered questions about InterCity. Here we have a successful operation, unique among European railways in that it makes a modest profit. Yet, from next April, InterCity will effectively cease to exist, except possibly as a brand name and livery. Its running will be divided among six 'profit centres' created with a view to separate privatisations.

But while InterCity's overall profits were pounds 3m last year, the first three sectors earmarked for privatisation made combined profits of around pounds 70m mostly from the East Coast Main Line. It is obvious that if these three are privatised, the remainder of what is now InterCity will be turned overnight into another loss- making railway, requiring subsidy if it is to survive.

Indeed, in the committee, Mr Freeman confirmed that the break-up of InterCity was bound to create 'a new subsidised railway' and that 'almost certainly more services numerically may qualify for grant than at present'. Under what branch of Tory philosophy is that desirable? And what are the implications for the network, if more services are dependent on a share of subsidy, the level of which is determined by government?

Against this background, glib assurances about the future of routes and services under privatisation are not worth the breath they are spoken with. Under the late Robert Adley, the Select Committee on Transport recommended that safeguards for existing levels of service should be built into franchise agreements.

However, in a breathtaking piece of effrontery, the Government last week scolded the Select Committee for seeking to 'ossify' services through such safeguards. If privatisation goes ahead on any scale, there will soon be a strong public preference in favour of 'ossifying' what they have at present, as opposed to the Government's favourite buzz word - 'flexibility' for private operators to make the cuts they see fit.

I welcome the upsurge of Tory concern, as expressed through amendments for this week's Report Stage. Judging by the names involved, led by Sir Keith Speed, I acknowledge that most of them are more concerned about the good health of our railways than with electoral consequences. However, I am sure they see that the two are closely linked.

By far the most important amendment is the one which would allow BR to compete for franchises. This would provide a crucial safeguard against a single bidder - and private operators are not exactly queuing up - claiming a franchise without any standard against which to measure the bid in terms of cost or service. Making BR compete in this way would surely, in Tory eyes, be a valuable discipline in itself. Preventing them from doing so is ridiculous.

The Government's belief that management buyouts are a better alternative is nonsense. Potential buyout teams could still bid, where they genuinely exist. But buyouts, ultimately, are a form of privatisation that carries few guarantees about future ownership or financial backing. Most important, buyouts, like any other sell-off, would contribute to fragmentation of railway operations.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, has shamelessly tried to give the impression that there are already 30 BR man agement teams just 'rarin' to go' for buyouts. In fact, that figure applies to the 'expressions of in terest', however vague or qualified by doubts - and most are from people who fear for their jobs, and do not want to see their bit of the railway snapped up by novices.

The public may yet have its say, whatever happens in the House of Commons this week - there is still a long way to go. I was in Christchurch on Friday for Robert Adley's funeral. It didn't look to me to be a place which would take kindly to dilution of its excellent railway services, nor to losing the Senior Citizen's Railcard advertised so prominently on its station's walls.

The writer is a Labour spokesman on transport.

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