Rail privatisation 'will never benefit' users

Train service: Passengers' watchdog criticises managers for complacency , hastily made changes and excessive safety emphasis

Rail privatisation has yielded no benefits so far and it is doubtful it ever will, according to the new chairman of the rail passengers' watchdog.

In an interview with the Independent, David Bertram, who took over three months ago from Major-General Lennox Napier as chairman of the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee, said: "Lots of the improvements which are promised would have happened anyway. British Rail was already introducing better customer service such as free tea and coffee in First Class and improving its performance generally."

He said that, so far, "there was a strong argument in saying that privatisation has had a negative impact". He cited how a railway worker on a station with a stuck train would not be able to talk directly to the signalbox worker at the end of the platform because they work for different companies: "The man on the station has to go to head office of the train operating company, which will contact Railtrack and then go back down to the man in the signalbox. As a result, it takes longer to get things moving again when things go wrong because of the separation of the companies".

He feels that railway managers have, in the past, been complacent: "Virtually everyone using the railway has an alternative choice. Even commuters can often use cars or buses. There is no captive market for the railways."

He criticised the rush in which privatisation was carried out: "They hurried it through. They should have looked first and followed the motto, 'first do no harm'." He is worried that extra layers of bureaucracy have been created with little benefit to the passenger.

Mr Bertram, who lives in Doncaster where he is the chairman of the local NHS Trust, arrived half an hour late for the interview, having been delayed by a broken rail on a crucial part of the East Coast Main Line track, near Welwyn: "I worry about whether these things are increasing. It is down to Railtrack, and already there has been that problem over the tracks out of Euston." (The Health and Safety Executive issued an enforcement notice against Railtrack earlier this year because of the dilapidated state of the track.)

The state of the West Coast Main Line is of enormous concern to CRUCC and he intends to campaign to ensure that improvements are brought about: "The state of the line is a disgrace and Railtrack does not seem to be doing much about it." He recognises there is a need for a total overhaul and that there are debates over what technology should be used but says: "Perhaps Railtrack is going about it the wrong way. Every day that the line is not improved means that the eventual investment will cost more."

Mr Bertram has also been angered by the introduction of a bus service between Newark and Lincoln for InterCity East Coast rail users by the new franchisee, Sea Containers. "Why didn't they try to improve the train service between the two stations instead, rather than bring in buses? If I were Central trains [the local train company], I would be jumping up and down about it."

Mr Bertram, a retired manager who spent his working life in sales and quality control, receives pounds 7,800 for the two day per week role as chairman and was previously chairman of the Eastern consultative committee.

Mr Bertram thinks that there has been too much emphasis on rail safety without consideration of the cost: "If as much attention were paid to accidents on the roads, they would close them down every time there was a shower and you couldn't see through the spray." He reckons that many of the safety features introduced recently, such as much stricter rules about who is allowed on to the track have contributed to the poor performance of the railway.

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