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Railwatch 078 - December 1998

Railwatch - Revolt against regulation

Train operators are on a collision course with the Government over the regulation needed to put the railways back on track.

Major General James Gordon told the RDS-organised National Rail Users Conference on 26 September that there was enough rail regulation.

"There is already a mass of regulation and the industry is exposed to measurement like no other industry," said General Gordon who is director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies.

"We are not looking to more and tougher regulation from the new strategic rail authority. What we are looking for is strategic direction, growth and the engine for growth.

"And we want someone to speak up for the railways within government and with the Treasury and with all the new layers of regional government."

He added: "The key to everything is investment. There is already more coming in from private operators."

Next day however Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott went on TV to warn: "I'm going to bring in a very tough regulatory regime to control them.

"There are major changes I want to make with the strategic rail authority where public interest will be put to the fore of the operation of the railways, and not the private interest that we've seen dominate in the last few years.

"Tougher regulation is needed because the rail service is 'much worse' now than before privatisation and has a 'lousy record'."

General Gordon said the current system of sanctions on train operators was perverse with money going back to the Treasury. He said fines imposed on them should be recycled to go back into the industry.

The general rejected complaints about the national rail enquiry system and said that £25 million was being invested to make it better. The new Rail Journey Information System would allow better information to be given, including what routes were valid for particular tickets. It should begin operating early next year. He said: "The best brains are working on it. But sadly information technology systems often do not work 'straight out of the box'."

He also unveiled a new rail network map which showed all the different companies operating throughout Britain.

But in questions, Leslie Freitag from the Association for Dunstable Area Passenger Trains said ATOC had last year tried to scrap the Network Card and there was talk in the trade press again this year that there would be new attempts to withdraw it. General Gordon said the card was a commercial product and the train operators had to ask whether it was attracting or subtracting revenue.

RDS executive officer Nat Taplin was given a round of applause when he said the Network Card which is used by half a million people a year should be protected. He pointed out that changes last year had put the price of the card up from £12 to £40 for couples.

Questioned by Professor Brian Thomas about the level of services provided on reopened lines, General Gordon said reopenings were part of a core theme of developing the network.

He said: "Vigorous organisations like RDS have an important role to play, partly in attracting new funds from local authorities for rail."

The general however had an unpalatable message for a questioner who wanted train operators to act as a shop window for rail services in other countries.

"They will only do it if it adds value to their own operations," he said.

"It would not get very far up the scale of priorities." After General Gordon had left, RDS executive officer Nat Taplin explained what would be the society's priorities for the coming year.

He said RDS would be encouraging the Government to set up a powerful and pro-active strategic rail authority which should set new rules for the TOCs, protect more fares, and launch a National Rail Development Plan which would include line and staion reopening and electrification.

"We want tougher regulation to penalise companies that fail to deliver but we want the fines to go back into the network," he said. "We must ensure that rail features strongly in the five-year transport plans that local councils must now draw up."

When he mentioned media reports of possible rail cuts next year, he was interrupted by ATOC communications director David Campbell-Bannerman who dismissed the reports.But Nat insisted: "This is the sort of cutback we were warned might follow privatisation."

Later RDS chairman Steve Wilkinson asked for any information about the Sainsbury supermarket company pressing guided bus systems in other parts of Britain.

He said: "They are offering £13 million to push a guided bus system in Cambridge which no one wants and which is blocking reopening of the rail line from Cambridge to St Ives.

"They are also offering £1.25 million to upgrade the A14 road."

Property gain and loss

Richard Crane of the Bedford to Bletchley Rail Users raised the question of rail assets being sold off. He said: "Railtrack has sold off the access to the station at Woburn Sands. When I went there in my car, I was told I couldn't park there.

"It is now owned by the shop nearnby. So you can park there if you want to go to the shop but not if you want to catch a train."

Railtrack is currently hoping to buy some land for a car park on the other side of the road!

Delegate John Edwards said that at Gerrards Cross, a supermarket was planned across former railway land.

RDShas made some progress in getting some protection for railway land but continues to press for a Route protection Bill and is therefore contacting MPs and other potential allies.

Knowing we need cross-party support, we have written to one fifth of MPs. One third of these are giving indications of support.

We have support from rail companies, rail unions, the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee, passenger transport authorities, and other environmental and community groups including Transport 2000, Sustrans and BRAKE.

Community Rail Partnerships which supports several branch lines has called for the establishment of a charitable trust to take responsibility for surplus railway land.

"This should apply not just to BRB-owned land but also to Railtrack," said director Paul Salveson.

"We would like to see the board, and the future Strategic Rail Authority, sitting down with Railtrack Property and other agencies to develop innovative and creative uses for surplus land and buildings, with extensive community consultation."

Creating community gardens, allotments, attractive open space for recreational use are some of the possibilities.

"Having a human presence at unstaffed stations, for example a community group based in a former waiting room, helps give a sense of security to rail passengers," he said.

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.

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