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I was unlucky enough to see Railways Minister John Watts on TV say that rail privatisation now has an "unstoppable momentum". It immediately brought to my mind the image of a runaway train. And we know where they usually end up!
Despite the warnings, the Government has pressed ahead with the final and most damaging piece of privatisation - the flotation of Railtrack. It was pushed through with horrendous arrogance and in dangerous haste.
"A good property investment" says one financial brochure. Yet when I suggested property was the key to the fragmentation as long ago as 1991, it was denied. At that time even privatisation plans were denied.
Now though Railtrack has boasted of having made profits of £70 million. It has been less forthcoming about how little real investment or maintenance of infrastructure has taken place. The "profit" figure seems more than a little cynical. So too does the £66 million in "sweeteners" being given to shareholders. It is a misuse of funds, particularly because Railtrack is currently taking a pension holiday. As I am national chairman of the British Transport Pensioners' Federation - a non party political body - I know the members find this attitude offensive.
Many of them feel that the pension fund should have had the money if it was not being used to improve the infrastructure of the railway. It may be perfectly legal to have a pension holiday and to use the money how you like but we who worked, or are working still, in the industry feel it to be wrong.
Profit and the demands of flotation seem to be Railtrack's main concerns. Yet Railtrack's own in-house magazine warns of 101 locations with cable degradation. This reinforces the worries many of us have about rail safety in the future.
I am also worried about staffing changes revealed in the flotation mini prospectus which shows that, in just two years, 341 executives have joined the organisation. plus an additional 156 administrators. In the same time, the wages grade - people on the ground - has been cut back by over 29%. Is it any wonder the number of incidents rise daily and maintenance is shown wanting?
I for one will not be buying shares in Railtrack. But after the flotation, ways must be found to protect railway land and property. Railtrack must not be allowed to strip the assets or borrow money against the value of those assets simply to give it to their shareholders.
In my way of thinking, there should be no future role in the railways for the Franchise Director. Instead of the Franchise Director, a revitalised British Rail with new public service objectives should supervise ALL the franchises. No more train operating companies should be franchised. But those already franchised should be managed to encourage the provision of a decent service and investment in rolling stock.
The Regulator, however, could have a future role. His powers could actually be increased. His official aim should be to promote investment and more intensive use of rail. He could use those powers positively in a very different way. He could for instance insist that land and property needed for the railway is not sold off. Any proceeds of land that is sold off should be required to be invested in rail.
We have to fight from wherever we are. So the privateers will have to be regulated to preserve the network benefits we already have.
But we also want those network benefits - and general service levels - enhanced.
Peter's book, provisionally entitled My Life on the Line, is expected to be published later this year. If you have any ideas for a better title, please e-mail Railwatch.
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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