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Monday, 16 July, 2001, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Byers turns up heat on train companies

Virgin Trains is among the companies battling for franchises
Transport secretary Stephen Byers has increased the pressure on train companies to speed up improvements to the UK rail network.

Mr Byers said the companies should be offered only short-term extensions to their franchises.

In a U-turn on previous policy, he wants to see improvement delivered before the companies' contracts are renewed.

The passengers have to come first and the changes we are announcing will secure the interests of the travelling public

Stephen Byers
"We need to see early gains as far as passengers are concerned," Mr Byers told the BBC's One o'clock News.

"The passengers have to come first and the changes we are announcing will secure the interests of the travelling public," he added.

Up until now longer contracts have been used to give companies enough time to spend money on their services.

Critics say the only solution is massive long-term investment rather than a short term fix.

More cash needed

Alastair Morton, outgoing chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), has warned the government that its much-vaunted 10-year transport plan is doomed to failure unless more cash is ploughed into the network.

Writing in the SRA's annual report, published on Monday, Mr Morton said: "It is necessary to reassess the 63bn funding for rail foreseen in the 10 Year Plan or the Plan itself, risking both failure to deliver the Plan's outcomes and incomplete coverage of the national rail system."

He said it was also necessary to reassess the Plan's prediction that 34bn of that allocation could come from the private sector.

"That was predicted when Railtrack Group PLC - the principal source - was claiming it could take on the enhancement as well as the operation and maintenance of an ageing network, since proved to be much more pressured and fragile than Railtrack thought."

Regaining confidence

Mr Morton said that events and lack of resources have slowed the SRA's delivery and undermined confidence.

"It is imperative that industry management, regulatory overview and government support regain mutual confidence, otherwise neither travelling public nor capital markets will regain confidence in Britain's railways," he added.

Transport secretary Stephen Byers
Byers: wants to speed up improvements
Other critics say the government is taking far too long to make its mind up over the next round of train franchises.

In particular, Mr Byers has been accused of dragging his heels over the East Coast Mainline Contract, currently held by GNER, which is potentially a 20-year contract.

George Muir, of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: "At the moment the concern is that the decisions are not being made, contracts are not being signed in time.

"Time spent on bidding has, in some cases, been wasted."

CBI warning

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said private investors would start to get cold feet if there were any more hold-ups.

We now expect things to become even more depressing than originally anticipated

Digby Jones
CBI director general
"The appalling state of our transport infrastructure is a huge issue for business so we plan annually to assess progress and mark the government's scorecard," CBI director general Digby Jones said.

"We've always known the situation would get worse before it gets better.

"But with slow progress in key areas, we now expect things to become even more depressing than originally anticipated."

Byers proposals

Under Mr Byers' new proposals, operators could still be offered lengthy contracts on some of the 18 franchises, most of which are up for renewal in 2003-04.

But they should only be granted by the SRA if firms can show improvements for passengers are not way down the line, Mr Byers said in the statement.

Lengthy franchises should be the exception rather than the rule, he added.

He wants to see operators introduce new passenger performance targets, improved trains and facilities, and cash for extra services.

Reducing overcrowding will be the priority on commuter services, while inter-city services should become more punctual, he said.

A two-year extension given to Midland Mainline last year pointed the way for improvements across the network, Mr Byers said.

The BBC's Tom Symonds
"Train companies just want decisions, however short term"
Transport secretary Stephen Byers
"I want the interests of the travelling passenger to be the new priority"
Director-General of the CBI, Digby Jones
"The primary thing has got to be 'put the consumer first'"
Director-General of ATOC, George Muir
"I want to see early improvements, and I think we can deliver it"
See also:

26 Jun 01 | Business
Railtrack's rail plans rejected
10 Jul 01 | Business
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22 Jun 01 | Business
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