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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 16:45 GMT
Row erupts over UK rail criticism
Downing Street has admitted mistakes have been made over transport policy - after Europe Minister Peter Hain said the UK had the worst railway system in Europe.

Tony Blair's official spokesman said the government was wrong to stick with Railtrack during its first term in office.

Neath MP Mr Hain said in a magazine interview that the government had invested in the UK's transport system "far too late", and that improving the railways was an "intractable problem".


We started transport investment far too late... We should have been more radical earlier

Peter Hain
The comments come as rail unions at two UK companies are to meet management in efforts to avoid further strike action in Scotland and the north of England.

There appears to be little hope of resolving a dispute at South West Trains where unions have threatened a repeat of their two 48-hour strikes which caused heavy disruption in the south.

With railways dominating the political agenda, Transport Secretary Stephen Byers says he is confident of making the necessary improvements before the next election.

Peter Hain, Europe Minister
Hain has made a "pretty devastating admission", say the Tories
If his "tough decisions" do not pay off, voters will hold Labour to account at the ballot box, Mr Byers told BBC News.

The beleagured minister said he was relaxed about Mr Hain's remarks, saying: "Peter Hain is saying, and I believe this, that we do not have a railway fit for Britain in the 21st century."

Mr Blair's official spokesman said there were no statistics available to make an accurate comparison and so Mr Hain's remarks were an "opinion".

The spokesman also delivered an implied rebuke for Mr Hain's comments about investment starting too late.

Like all ministers, Mr Hain knew the government had been right to lay the ground in its first two years to provide the economic stability needed for extra investment, said the spokesman.

'Cabinet support'

Number 10 says there was "rock solid support around the cabinet table" on Thursday for Mr Byers.

The government argues years of under investment will take time to put right and the public will have to be patient before there are improvements in rail services.

But Mr Hain told The Spectator: "We have the worst railways in Europe. We started transport investment far too late. It's an intractable problem. We should have been more radical earlier."

About-turn

Following the interview's publication, Mr Hain has sought to clarify his position and give his backing to the government's current 10-year plan.

"The railways and buses have suffered from decades and decades of under investment. Turning that around is like turning an oil tanker around - it takes an awful long time," he said.

Conservative shadow Cabinet Office minister Tim Collins says Mr Hain's remarks were a "pretty devastating admission" the issue had been mishandled.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair has been criticised for focusing on foreign affairs
Meanwhile, Gavin Strang, Labour ex-Minister for Transport, argued for the rail industry to be renationalised.

"It's a bold policy, but I think that is what is needed," he told the BBC, but Mr Byers is ruling out renationalisation.

Tory former transport minister Steve Norris said both Conservative and Labour governments were to blame for 30 or 40 years of under investment in the railway system.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Simon Montague
"The real pressure is to reverse decades of decline in a far shorter period"
Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa May
"We need to get more money into the railways"
Transport Secretary Stephen Byers
"We don't have a railway system that is fit for the 21st century"
See also:

10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair back to British business
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Hain - the establishment radical
09 Jan 02 | UK
Is UK transport the worst?
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Roots of a rail crisis
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blair admits public sector difficulties
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