If the U.K. stops investing in rail system, it will be ‘costly,’ watchdog warns

Britain has enough cash, infrastructure and workers to maintain its aging railway system, the National Audit Office said Thursday, and warned that withdrawing the state from the rail business could have serious consequences for the network and other parts of Britain’s public service.

Wednesday’s National Audit Office report found the British government expects taxpayers to pick up an additional £4.6 billion ($6.4 billion) toward the cost of renewing the railways in the next five years, which the debt-laden government doesn’t have the money to do on its own.

It said it is likely the country will have to cover £50 billion ($65 billion) of the deficit over the next 50 years. The NAO cited evidence that the credit rating agencies will lower the government’s debt if it carries out a large bond issue to pay for the railway program.

The agency also warned that encouraging private investment could deter funding from EU countries that want Britain to leave the EU.

Britain’s transport secretary, Chris Grayling, has sought to reassure businesses that he has no plans to terminate the state’s role in running the railways after leaving the EU.

Grayling also has said he will not sell the network’s profitable London Eye attraction.

The watchdog also expressed concern that the government could end up paying for an infrastructure program that was intended for the railways only. That would amount to a “betrayal” of public service expectations, it said.

National Rail has made a number of improvements, the report said, including reduced journey times on key routes and a 50 percent drop in pollution on many stretches of track.

But NAO chief Amyas Morse said an economic recovery that has pushed unemployment down sharply, and inflation below the 2 percent target, has boosted public finances in recent years.

The report also said the railway’s passengers have seen the value of their annual season tickets increase by 13 percent over the past decade.

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