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Wednesday, July 7, 1999 Published at 17:42 GMT 18:42 UK


UK Politics

Rail bill finally arrives

Rail users' complaints hit an all-time high in June

Train companies failing to meet performance targets will face tough new penalties under a rail bill set before the House of Commons.


The BBC's Simon Montague: "Train operators and Railtrack could face instant fines"
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's long-awaited plans finally arrived on Wednesday, bringing the prospect of legal backing for his new regulatory rail set-up.

Britain's privatised rail companies will risk harsh fines - described as unlimited but reasonable - unless they live up to the promises in their contracts and timetables.

Mr Prescott, who is also the Transport Secretary, said: "The bill provides for a growing railway that is publicly accountable and puts the passenger interest ahead of anything.


[ image: John Prescott: Trying to improve the railways' poor reputation]
John Prescott: Trying to improve the railways' poor reputation
"Until now, there has been little incentive to enhance the network. Now there will be rougher and swifter penalties and the bill will put the passenger into the position of being the most important person on the railway system."

The rail bill will give legal powers to the new strategic rail authority, although it may not become law until next year.

Mr Prescott has already put in place a new system of regulating the rail industry designed to force companies to put services to passengers before profits - but as yet there are no legal powers to enforce this.

The bill setting out those powers was promised nearly a year ago in the government's transport White Paper. The delay in its appearance fuelled accusations that its reforms are running into trouble.

With numerous press reports of differences between Mr Prescott and Downing Street over transport policy, he appeared keen to publish the plans before MPs stopped work at Westminster for their summer recess.

'Prescott to blame'

Shadow Transport Secretary John Redwood earlier questioned why it had taken so long to introduce the bill.


John Redwood: "This bill is too little, too late"
"My worry is that if this bill is so crucial, why was it cancelled last year, why is it being delayed this year and why will it probably arrive late in the next parliamentary year?" he said.

He accused the deputy prime minister of being personally responsible for problems on the nation's road and railways.

"I am critical of the overall lack of direction and chaos created by John Prescott. It is he who has jammed up the roads, it is he who has failed to invest in public transport, it is he who has failed to take the steps he thinks are necessary to deal with what he think are the problems on the railways."


Anthony Smith of the Central Rail Users Committee: "There's just not the capacity to cope"
But Anthony Smith, National Director of the Central Rail Users Committee, said he was confident that the government would now get a firm grip on the rail network.

"Something that's been badly missing since the railways were privatised back in 1993 is a secure and sustained flow of investment into the industry," he said.

"If this new legislation sets up the strategic rail authority which will be able to expand and improve the rail network, that must be a good thing for passengers."

Soaring level of complaints

Mr Prescott's attempt to get tough on the rail companies follows a report in June, which found customer complaints were at an all-time high.


John Prescott: "I'm having to deal with problems from the last twenty years"
The number of complaints made by travellers rose by 27% last year, with reliability, punctuality and overcrowding topping the list of moans.

Overall, complaints about reliability rose by 42%, punctuality by 38% and overcrowding by 36%.

The biggest cause of dissatisfaction was punctuality, making up 21% of complaints.



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