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Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 23:38 GMT
Q&A: Why railway cuts?
The government reportedly wants to cut subsidies to train operators by 20%, amid fears the cost of the railways is spiralling out of control.

Train firms warned this could mean a subsequent 20% cut in services - and passenger groups have reacted with dismay.

BBC political correspondent Mark Mardell explains why the funding cuts are needed - and what they could mean for passengers.

This sounds like a disaster for rail passengers?

Well yes. Clearly no commuters are going to say: "The one thing the government could do is cut the number of trains, and cut the amount of money going into the industry."

Obviously everybody would regard that as pretty bad news.

Why does the government want to make these funding cuts?

I think the government's talking about cuts for two reasons.

Firstly, the government is saying: "What's happening to all our money?"

Our money, taxpayers' money, that's going into the railways is largely being eaten up by the cost of maintenance work.

It's really, really gone up - not just by a little bit, but by 50, 60, 70, 80% in some cases.

So they're saying "get a grip" to the companies. And the companies are arguing back, "well, we'll have to cut services if you tell us we can't spend the money".

But at the same time the government is rethinking the whole transport policy.

Is this a sign the government is growing less fond of railways?

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling is making a statement in the Commons this week about the whole transport policy.

I think ministers are going to put less emphasis on rail.

One good source said to me that in the past the railways were seen as some sort of 'miracle cure'.

Get the railways right - and nobody's saying they have done that - and we'll all chuck away our car keys and get off the roads.

And they've sort of realised that isn't going to happen.

Has Alistair Darling inherited a poisoned chalice from previous ministers?

There's an implication from the people around him that Stephen Byers and John Prescott never got a fix on this, and he's sort of sweeping up their mess.

The BBC did a survey of 12 top civil servants who looked at all the departments in Whitehall.

If people still think everything is getting worse, then it will be a huge issue at the next election

The one department they say is very poor, that hasn't got a grip on where it's going, is transport.

So you can see what sort of problems Alistair Darling's got.

Nevertheless, he may be the new broom and all that, but he's really, as far as the government is concerned, got to get it right by the time of the next election.

Even if people are only grumbling "oh well I suppose it's getting a bit better", then that will be enough for them.

But if people still think everything is getting worse, then it will be a huge issue at the election and I think pretty catastrophic for them.

The management of the railway infrastructure at the time of Railtrack's demise was seen as poorly performing and over-paid. Is that still the case?

I think it is. You talk to people privately and they say the problems that we had with Railtrack seem to be still continuing.

This is what the government's message is to the train companies: "Get a grip on the money. You're not being strong enough, you're not being hard enough.

"Get a grip on the money and then we'll talk about the future."


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