Railtrack results hit by freight revenue dip

Income setback: First figures since privatisation show pounds 190m prof it but reveal problem in goods services
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The Independent Online
A surprisingly sharp drop in income from railfreight cast a shadow over the publication of Railtrack's first profit figures since privatisation last month.

The bulk of Railtrack's pounds 2.3m income is determined by the regulator who sets the formula by which train operators pay for use of the track and stations, most of which comes from Government subsidy.

However, freight revenue, one of the variable elements in Railtrack's income stream, showed a worrying dip from pounds 191m to pounds 158m, mainly as a result of reduced prices on long-term contracts which run out in 1998.

Railtrack said it now thinks "these contracts are on a commercial footing", though it faces a difficult period of negotiation with English, Scottish and Welsh Railways, the subsidiary of Wisconsin Central which now owns the main freight companies.

Railfreight is one of the few opportunities for growth in Railtrack income, as passenger service levels vary very little from year to year because of the inflexibility of the new structure of the railways under privatisation.

The regulator has set a formula of retail price inflation, minus 2 per cent for access charges over the next five years.

Railtrack confirmed that its pre-tax profit for the year to March 31, the last under public ownership, was pounds 190m. Shareholders will receive a dividend of 13.75p per share payable on October 4.

Property rental income, which also has scope for unregulated growth in the short term, was almost the same as in the previous year at pounds 112m.

Railtrack is committed to spending pounds 760m on refurbishing all its 2,500 stations over the next five years as part of its annual pounds 1bn per year investment expenditure. However, a spokesman for Railtrack said these improvements would not result in increased rents.

Bob Horton, Railtrack's chairman, said Railtrack was becoming more efficient and that its operations had become "progressive more functionally focused, commercially adept and more closely related to the needs of the customers".

However, he said work was still needed to change the industry's culture to make it even more responsive to customer needs.

The regulatory regime also required a strict control on costs, Mr Horton said, which will also help to pay for what the company terms a "progressive dividend policy".

The company accepts that there will be job losses from its 11,500-strong workforce. However, most of the savings will result from squeezing contracts with the newly-privatised infrastructure companies which provide track maintenance and which account for the bulk of Railtrack's pounds 2bn operating costs.

Clare Short, the shadow Transport Secretary, said Railtrack's figures were misleading: "This is taxpayers' money masquerading as Railtrack profit. Public subsidy into the privatised has had to increase in order to make their corrupt system appear profitable."

Labour has said it will impose a stricter regulatory regime on Railtrack but has yet to flesh out how. Some details may emerge today when Ms Short launches Labour's document on transport policy at a London conference.