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As Passengers Steam, Britain Promises to Revamp Rail System


LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair may be celebrated in the United States and well received in Afghanistan, but he is under attack at home by irritated Britons and an angry press interested in just one question: Can he make the trains run on time?

So far, the answer is no. The government acknowledged as much Monday when Transport Minister Stephen Byers laid out a 10-year plan for revitalizing the country's decrepit railways, which were privatized a decade ago.

How bad are Britain's trains?

"We have the worst railways in Europe," Peter Hain, the government's minister for Europe, wrote in the Spectator magazine this week.

Hain got a rap on the knuckles from the prime minister's office for that comment, and Byers denied that the rail system is Europe's worst. But in presenting highlights of the Strategic Railway Authority's plan to Parliament, Byers acknowledged: "We do not have a railway system that is fit for the 21st century."

Many British commuters would argue that it is scarcely fit for the 20th century. Britain's trains are generally older, dirtier, slower, later and less reliable than those in most Western European countries, according to comparisons made by British media.

They are also more expensive. For a 40-minute journey from Guildford in Surrey to London's Waterloo Station and back, British commuters pay about $21.60.

A similar journey between Creil, France, and the Gare du Nord in Paris costs $13.63, and between Paulinenaue, Germany, and Berlin is $12.18, according to the Independent newspaper. Spanish commuters pay just $4.93 for a similar trip from Aranjuez to Madrid and back.

British commuters often engage in train-horror one-upmanship, trading stories about doors that don't open, windows that don't shut and trains that don't arrive. And that's when there are no strikes, as there are now, and no crashes, as there have been in the last few years.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democratic Party's spokesman on transportation, called the rail network "a Bermuda Triangle" that swallows passengers' lives.

Counting every train trip that was delayed by at least five minutes, he calculated that passengers collectively wasted the equivalent of at least 4,533 years waiting for late trains in the last 12 months.

John Johnson, a researcher for a mineral company, commutes an hour from the Oxford area to London's Paddington Station each weekday on trains that normally arrive five to 10 minutes late.

"At least once a month, it's severely delayed, up to an hour or so. You can count on that," Johnson said. "I get a seat because I get on early, but I feel sorry for people who get on in Oxford and Reading, because they don't get a seat."

Then again, he added: "The seats are extremely uncomfortable because they are very close together, so you can't read the newspaper. There's hardly room to breathe."

Johnson said he normally pays $6,380 for an annual pass for this route, although the rail company lowered the price this year by $435 to compensate commuters for the delays.

Byers, the transport minister, says the problems are due to three decades of underinvestment and the previous, Tory government's privatization effort. But in an interview with the Guardian newspaper published Monday, he said: "There can be no more excuses. It's now our responsibility. We can't blame the Tories anymore."

That is the attitude of commuters, who note that train service has not improved since Blair's Labor Party took over in May 1997.

Byers offered the country's 1.2 million train commuters "an agenda for action. It shows what will be achieved for the large-scale investment we intend to make over the next 10 years."

The government promises to spend nearly $50 billion over the 10 years to upgrade the railways and expects the private sector to match the public money, the vast majority of which has already been allocated. Included are $580 million for a special rail performance fund to improve reliability in the short term; 1,700 new rail cars by 2004 on the busy London and southeast England routes, which account for 70% of all passenger journeys; and improvements at 1,000 stations.

Tracks and signals are to be improved by 2007, and staff are to be trained at a national rail academy.

Almost all new projects are to be financed by public-private partnerships.

The opposition Tory Party's transportation spokeswoman, Theresa May, dismissed the plan as a mix of previously announced programs and "cosmetic gimmicks."

The Rail Passengers Council, a citizens group that monitors the railroads, said it feared that even the nearly $98-billion investment will not be enough, and political leaders questioned whether the private sector will invest in the railways after the government withdrew subsidies and put Railtrack, the private company that owned Britain's tracks, into receivership last year.

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