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Railwatch 081 - October 1999

Tube in a tangle

The Government's apparent determination to give much-maligned Railtrack a major stake in London's Tube network is worrying both rail campaigners and rail unions.

If the aim was to integrate the Tube with the national rail network, there would be some sense in it. Maybe then we could imitate Paris by having more cross-city RER lines. But Railtrack hardly seems the organisation to be involved in such a visionary policy.

We have watched its poor performance on the former British Rail network and heard Rail Regulator Tom Winsor order the company to get its act together or face £40 million fines.

The Government's aim seems to be largely financial - relying on Railtrack to raise money cheaply on private sector markets and avoid Treasury meddling.

One of the few identifiable benefits of rail privatisation was to free the industry from the steely embrace of the Treasury which has kept the railways short of money for the past 40 years.

ASLEF general secretary Mick Rix commented: "What is astonishing is that even deputy prime minister John Prescott seems incapable of standing up to his Treasury colleague, Chancellor Gordon Brown.

"We believe the Government must rethink its proposals before it is too late and we are once again at the mercy of Railtrack to restore our ailing railway system. London Underground's aspirations to improve services and run more trains will be sabotaged by Railtrack's determination to squeeze Underground trains off the system to maximise its profits from access charges paid by other train operators. "

ASLEF wants the Underground to be able to borrow the money directly without any third party being involved.

The Commons transport committee also concluded that the Underground should be allowed to borrow money without the constraints of Treasury public expenditure rules.

The committee said: "It would appear that Treasury rules have forced the adoption of this form of public-private partnership, a convoluted compromise. Other financial solutions might have been more effective."

Mr Prescott has said Railtrack will be barred from day-to-day running of the Tube and would act "merely as a fund raiser for improvements". The network will be divided into three "Infracos" and other bidders will be expected to take over two. But an insider predicted: "Eventually Railtrack will get the lot."

While private-public plans are expected to start in 2001, the Government allocated an extra £517 million to the Underground in July.

Mr Prescott admitted: "London Transport has been struggling with an investment backlog of £1.2 billion."

A London Cross River Partnership, involving LT, London boroughs and the Goverment Office for London, has been set up to consider whether to press ahead with an idea for a tram scheme to link Peckham and Stockwell in south London with Euston and King's Cross stations. via Waterloo. The idea would be to take road space away from cars - mainly those that are at present illegally parked.

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