Railtrack and freight lobby clash over pounds 16bn plan

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The Independent Online
Railtrack's spending plans have come under attack from freight operators who describe the commitments as "extremely disappointing".

Despite Railtrack's pledge to spend more than pounds 4m a day for the next 10 years on Britain's rail network, freight operators were dismayed by the lack of detail in the company's plans.

Lord Berkeley, the chairman of the Rail Freight Group which represents 150 freight operators, complained in a letter to Ofrail, the rail regulator, that Railtrack's forecasts gave "little technical information and contained virtually nothing of interest to the industry. This offers no reassurance that Railtrack is planning ahead for freight."

Operators say that Railtrack's predictions of rail freight growth are too pessimistic. The privatised monopoly expects traffic to grow by 2 per cent a year.

This flies in the face of analysis by English Welsh & Scottish, the largest rail freight company in Britain, which calculates that traffic will treble in the next decade. The industry lobby also points out that the Channel Tunnel and the ports could add 60 trains a day to the West Coast line.

A spokeswoman for Railtrack said the company's forecasts were a "realistic view of the railways". The company said it was planning a large-capacity freight route from the Channel Tunnel to Scotland that, if realised, could add 1.5 billion tonne-miles to the network by 2007.

Freight operators also claim that Railtrack has failed to provide a list of capacity constrained routes. "We are surprised that Railtrack appears to be saying that it will only identify bottlenecks when trains start being delayed," said Lord Berkeley.

The rail regulator's office said it had received the letter but would not comment for several days. "We will take these concerns into account when we publish our response to Railtrack's proposals," said a spokesman.

The freight industry is unlikely to be satisfied with anything but a severe reappraisal of the pounds 16bn spending plans. "It is clear that Railtrack's view on freight investment is that, if anyone wants it, the Government or the customer must pay for most if not all of the costs," wrote Lord Berkeley.

This is not the first time the freight lobby and Railtrack have clashed. In November last year the industry accused the track and signalling company of hiking up by 300 per cent the costs of the innovative "piggyback" project, designed to carry lorry units on the railways.

Railtrack also faces criticism from operators using track and signalling outside Euston station in London. Last year, the company was given 12 months to improve track conditions after a derailment. Railtrack failed to meet the deadline and has received a month's extension.