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02Aug91 UK: EDITORIAL COMMENT - BRITISH RAIL SETS TEN YEAR DEVELOPMENT AGENDA.

It is easy to be rude about British Rail. And, it has to be said, a fair percentage of the abuse aimed in its direction has been earned. Delays, cancellations, overcrowding, high fares and even new trains that could not cope with the wrong type of snow have all meant that praise for BR chairman Sir Bob Reid and his colleagues has been a rare commodity.However, BR's 10-year plan - called Future Rail and published on Tuesday - is a very welcome development. As Sir Bob says, it is an attempt to set an agenda for the railways for the coming decade and it comes at a time when the network needs a huge amount of investment, both to reverse the process of decay and to fund a number of major projects that are vital to the country as a whole.These include the construction of the international passenger station at King's Cross; a network of freight villages around the country for international traffic; construction of the high speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel; and construction of the CrossRail line across London from Liverpool Street to Paddington.The document is vague and short on financial information. None of the projects listed above has been costed, for example. And Sir Bob Reid's speech at the launch was full of pleasant-sounding but imprecise phrases such as the 'quality of the product' and the 'needs of the citizens'.But even so, it is an important first step towards starting a national debate about the future of the railway system.What sort of railway system do we want? How are we going to pay for it? And how will it fit in with the policies for road and air transport?Hopefully, BR's initiative will assign to the dustbin the out-dated road versus rail debate and replace it with a debate about the sort of transport network the country needs.If BR's programme goes ahead as planned, it will be welcome news indeed for construction firms and, importantly, will provide a steady source of work from now until the year 2000.But if the improvements are to be carried out, substantial sums of money will have to be found. The key question is whether Transport Secretary Malcolm Rifkind - or John Prescott, his Labour opposite number, should he attain the office - will rise to the challenge.