British mourn passing of institution on rails

March 06, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

ABOARD THE WEST HIGHLANDER -- The sleeper train that is scheduled to die rolls through the moors and glens of the fog-shrouded Scottish Highlands, bearing 30 passengers, a five-man crew and a nation's frustration.

"Imagine, leaving London at night and waking up to see the Highlands," says Janice Bennett, a schoolteacher from Bishop's Stortford, sharing a cup of morning tea with her husband, Paul, while focusing on the misty dawn.

"But they're closing this train down. It's ridiculous. It's madness. They're selling the family silver again."

Britain is in the midst of a campaign to sell another state-owned company. British Airways is already gone; so are the gas industry, the electric industry, coal mines, buses, ports and steel mills.

This time, British Rail is on the block, and such money-losing trains as the West Highlander are in jeopardy.

The privatization of British railroads may excite attorneys and consultants, who stand to earn millions from the transactions, but train passengers are upset, fearing route cuts and fare increases. British Rail is considered part of the national patrimony -- faded, no longer in its prime, but much loved.

People find it difficult, for example, to part with the West Highlander. It runs 12 hours and 550 miles from London to the Scottish outpost of Fort William, wedged between the banks of Loch Linnhe and the base of Ben Nevis, Britain's tallest peak.

The overnight train with its starched bed linen, single-malt scotches and fresh hot chocolate represents everything that is right -- and wrong -- with the present system: The rail system is operated as a public service, retains a sense of history, remains resistant to widespread staff and route cuts -- and can't turn a profit.

British Rail requires about $1.5 billion a year from the government; some routes are profitable, others not. On the West Highlander, the loss is $700 on every passenger making the full run.

The service is due to be discontinued May 28, a victim of budget cuts aimed, in part, at making the railroad more enticing for investors.

$84 billion in subsidies

Since Britain nationalized its railroads in 1948, the government has provided $84 billion in subsidies. Indeed, all the European rail systems that Americans admire so much for efficiency -- in Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium -- are fueled by government funds.

In Britain, there are tales of trains arriving 490 minutes late, of brakes that don't work, of service being interrupted because of wet leaves. But in 1994, 90 percent of British Rail trains arrived within 10 minutes of their scheduled time.

Prime Minister John Major has said that his aim is to transform the railways into "the envy of the world." His critics say the government is blindly -- and foolishly -- following the dogma of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who ignited the revolution to sell state-run industries.

"With those in power, it's public/bad, private/good," said Bill Bradshaw, a fellow at Wolfson College at Oxford University and a former director of British Rail operations.

To understand the hold that railways have on this country, consider this: There are nearly 11,000 miles of rail lines in Britain, compared with about 2,000 miles of highways. In London, 40 percent of workers commute by train, 40 percent by subway, only 20 percent by car.

Trains carry much of the mail. They bring tourists from Gatwick Airport to downtown London. They link the faded industrial belt of the north to the booming south.

Trains also are an enduring symbol of old socialist economic policies that took root when the Labor Party came to power after World War II and nationalized major industries.

Then, in the 1980s, the government found itself burdened by debt. One way to reduce it was to sell government-owned properties, and Britain was not alone in choosing that strategy. From Argentina to New Zealand, private companies have

purchased rail systems, streamlined operations, begun to make profits.

In the United States, the private option has periodically been suggested for Amtrak, the government-subsidized national rail passenger service. Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation created in will receive $1.1 billion in federal subsidies this year, but the railroad has cut services in anticipation of future reductions in aid.

No country has unveiled a privatized rail plan as audacious -- or as complex -- as Britain's.

In preparation for the sale, British Rail has been broken up into dozens of separate companies. One of them, Railtrack, owns the tracks, signaling equipment and most of the British Rail property. Twenty-five other companies lease access to the lines from Railtrack and run the trains.

The system will become wholly private when Railtrack is sold. The other 25 companies will be offered for lease, as franchises.

Significant barriers

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