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Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 14:33 GMT


Blair shunts 'failing' rail bosses

Off the rails: Train punctuality is worsening

Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned rail companies their service is failing travellers and must improve quickly.

The BBC's Simon Montague: "The duffers won't have their contracts renewed"
Mr Blair told a rail summit in London that poor performers would not be allowed to renew their operating franchises.

"I want to make it perfectly clear to you that you are on trial," he told the audience of rail managers.

"You are failing your customers and those who continue to fail them have no place in the rail industry of the future."

Tony Blair: "The rail industry needs to start doing better - now"
Mr Blair said the sanctions he could currently use against poor performers were to an extent limited by the contracts agreed under the previous Tory government.

But he said: "Don't think either that the length of the franchises held by train operating companies means that everything between us is set in stone.

"Don't think that because the franchises are contractually in place there is nothing we can do to drive forward improvements - that we will have to wait until the franchises come to an end."

Longer franchises on offer

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said some companies were unwilling to invest more in better services as they did not believe they could recoup that money within the lifetime of a seven-year rail franchise.

[ image: John Prescott: Offering longer franchises for better services]
John Prescott: Offering longer franchises for better services
Mr Prescott said he was prepared to grant longer agreements but in return for greater guarantees on performance.

He urged firms seeking franchises to make the government "an offer we can't refuse".

"I want to hear how they are going to put the passenger at the top and how they are going to write in quality indices, commitments and investment into the contract. So if they fail to achieve that I have actions and powers to use against them," he said.

Branson urges use of praise

Official figures show that train punctuality is worsening among the 25 privatised train operating companies.

[ image: Richard Branson: Threats will not work]
Richard Branson: Threats will not work
But businessman Richard Branson, whose Virgin CrossCountry line had the lowest marks in the survey earlier this month, said threats would not solve the problems.

He said: "To be frank, I think that what the government needs to do is not to interfere too much.

"It needs to ensure that the ground rules are set, it needs to be sure it does not change those ground rules and it needs to do as much as it can to encourage the staff because in the end, the people who are working on the railway are people like you and myself.

"They need lots of praise where praise is due and that's the kind of atmosphere we would like to see and expect from this government."

'Passengers' champion'

The summit also saw the first public appearance of Sir Alastair Morton since his appointment as the chairman of the new shadow Strategic Rail Authority on Wednesday.

[ image: Sir Alastair Morton: Will intervene in emergencies]
Sir Alastair Morton: Will intervene in emergencies
Mr Prescott said Sir Alastair would act as the "passengers' champion" to improve dismal train services.

Sir Alastair, former boss of Eurotunnel, said he would to try to knit the privatised train network together into a partnership.

He told the summit he was not responsible for making trains run on time or for building new lines. But it would be his job to step in to take over rail franchises temporarily if the operators went bust, he said.

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