Freight companies are furious that Railtrack has mothballed plans to carry out work on the vital London to Glasgow line to cater for "piggyback" trains - which allow lorry containers to be put straight on trailers without any modification. The news could be announced as soon as this week.
The decision will be a personal blow to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has made the growth of piggyback a main plank of the Government's integrated transport strategy. It also comes as Railtrack is trying to persuade the Government to adopt a new system for regulating what it charges train operators for access to the track.
The industry expects Railtrack to announce it is not pressing ahead with plans to raise the gauge to allow 4-metre high containers - which are used by 75 per cent of UK traffic and are the standard in continental Europe. Instead, it will opt for a compromise that will allow it take smaller 9ft 6in wagons, vital for the deep-sea container market, across more of the rail network, saying that the market has changed.
Lord Berkeley, chairman of the Piggyback Consortium, said Railtrack had been "incompetent" for choosing the West Coast Main Line (WCML) for piggyback and then going back on that decision.
He said freight customers wanted piggyback because of the easy transfer from road to rail and because of its commonality across Europe.
"Railtrack say the market has changed, but the reason that Railtrack is saying it would like to take 9ft 6in on the WCML has nothing to do with the market and everything to do with money," he said.
Last year, Railtrack invested pounds 5m of its own money in freight out of a budget of pounds 1.45bn, he said. Modifications for the 9ft 6ins freight would cost pounds 10m while the piggyback project could cost Railtrack pounds 100m out of a total budget for Piggyback, including government grants, of pounds 250m. "When you look at it in the context of spending pounds 100m over five years, you can see that the bean counters will be looking at the pounds 5m spent last year and the thought of spending pounds 20m a year on piggyback is pretty frightening."
English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, which has ordered 30 piggyback wagons, said it was angry about the policy change.
Railtrack said no decision had been taken, but an announcement would soon be made. Any decision would reflect the needs of the railfreight industry as a whole and not just the piggyback lobby.
A government spokesman said it had not received an application for a railfreight grant and it was therefore too early to comment on the wider issues.Reuse content