Government opens gates for a Railtrack windfall

CITY DIARY
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The Independent Online
The hidden element of the rail privatisation equation can at last be revealed. The Government has quietly raised the fines for leaving the gates open on the old manually-operated level crossings - from pounds 5 to pounds 1,000.

Given that there are 400 of them still around, the substantial hike in penalties (which was pushed through Parliament in the past couple of weeks) could result in a significant windfall for Railtrack, the soon- to-be floated track operator. If all the crossing gates are left open only once a year it will mean pounds 400,000 extra revenue if the offenders are caught.

The move is unlikely to be greeted with much enthusiasm by farmers, country folk and the Ramblers Association, who will shortly find themselves funding much-needed investment in tracks and signalling.

Further haemorrhaging from Greig Middleton. Britain's leading private client broker is selling its Channel Islands operation to Collins Stewart following reports of an imminent mutiny.

A total of 33 staff, including seven brokers, were about to jump ship from the Channel Island and Isle of Man offices, citing Greig's unwillingness to fund corporate work as the last straw. Collins Stewart, a London-based broker, is backed by Singer & Friedlander.

While it might sound parochial this will prove extremely awkward for Greig. The offshore patch is a highly lucrative one with a huge client base. It also follows the defection of 11 staff from the firm's Birmingham office last month.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that the cost-cutting at Royal Insurance may have gone a touch too far. Richard Gamble, the urbane chief executive, has taken to saving newspaper discount vouchers. Dining in the City the other night he surprised guests by pulling out a snappy little wallet containing a series of Financial Times vouchers. Presumably the Royal no longer runs to the 65p cover price.

This is not the first time that Mr Gamble has demonstrated the frugal side of his nature. The proud possessor of a Morgan sports car, he once admitted that it rarely left the garage on the grounds that he could not get it insured.

Something to do with a failed MoT.

Mr Gamble may care to exchange one of his vouchers for a copy of this Saturday's FT. A piece planned for the weekend section in praise of rollerblading should make interesting reading. The article was penned by Gillian Tett, the paper's economics correspondent and a keen rollerblader. Unhappily, Ms Tett will be reviewing the final product from the safety of her hearth. She has since fallen off her rollerblades and broken her ankle.

First Leisure, the disco operator, is unimpressed with Lord Alexander of Weedon, the National Westminster Bank chairman who also leads the House of Lords Deregulation Committee. John Conlan, First Leisure's chief executive, complains that the committee's decision not to consider a fast-track repeal of the 1780 Sunday Observance Act - which imposes strict drinking and dancing laws - is a bit rich given NatWest's plans to operate Sunday banking.

"My lord speaketh with forked tongue," snapped Mr Conlan.

The committee is unruffled. "Perhaps Lord Alexander feels that the cash machines will make less noise than discos," retorts a committee spokesman.

The harsh line adopted by the National Lottery operator on illegal overseas players may need some rethinking. You will recall that Camelot has pledged to withhold prize money if winners are found to be non-UK residents. Indeed, so popular is the UK lottery in Thailand (their own lottery pays out a measly pounds 6,500 or so) that organised syndicates are charging up to five times the price of a pounds 1 weekly ticket. The money is paid in advance and front men buy the tickets at high street stores in London.

However, senior bankers are privately urging caution. The demand for sterling in Thailand is now a factor supporting the pound. One for Kenneth Clarke to ponder.

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