Arbitrator may review Railtrack's charges

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The Independent Online
Railtrack, the owner of the nation's track, signalling and stations, is likely to have its track access charges reviewed by an independent arbitrator after complaints from train operating companies that performance payments are too high.

Railtrack has been targeted by train operators after its accounts revealed bonus payments of pounds 29m for last year because it had exceeded performance targets. That compared with a pounds 43m penalty the year before.

Connex South Central, which runs services in Surrey, Sussex and south London, believes the benchmark year for the performance regime was set too low. This has meant Connex being charged far more than it expected. The company, owned by French giant Generale des Eaux, has appointed a legal team to examine the possibility of taking action. Although the number of minutes lost to train delays has improved by 38 per cent, Connex has paid out nearly pounds 10m more to Railtrack.

At present, the two sides are talking through the disputes resolution committee - an internal railway body designed to prevent disputes escalating.

"We are in discussions at the moment and want to get it sorted out at quickly as possible," said a spokeswoman for Railtrack. "Connex South Central have expressed a view about the details of a contractual arrangement with us and have indicated an intention to seek changes within that."

However, senior sources at the train company said that "if there is no movement we will go the whole way".

What has angered many railway executives is that Railtrack managed to extract a "supplementary access charge" worth pounds 75m in 1996. Although this dwindles to zero in 2001, Railtrack's prospectus said that directors "do not believe that improvements [in performance] will be sufficient to match the reductions in the supplements".

Industry sources say the problem is that the yardstick year chosen was 1994 - a particularly bad year for the railways whose performance could easily be exceeded. Tom Winsor, a leading railway lawyer, said if a train operating company could not settle the matter with Railtrack it could simply start arbitration proceedings.