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Watchdog rap for Railtrack

THE GOVERNMENT official in charge of regulating the privatised train companies has launched an attack on Railtrack after the company suggested the only way to run a decent rail service was to operate fewer trains.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, John O'Brien, the head of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf), denounced Railtrack for arguing that train operators were motivated to run lots of trains but not to run them well.

His comments come just days after John Swift, the rail regulator whose job is to oversee Railtrack, warned the company not to massage performance figures to bolster its case for railway reform. Such a tactic, said Mr Swift, was "unacceptable".

The rail industry has "every incentive in the world" to schedule more trains, Mr O'Brien said. "They would attract more passengers and therefore more revenue. I'm perfectly happy to accept that at the margins we should be reviewing performance regimes. But I do not accept that the way they are structured systematically produces poor performance. It is manifestly untrue."

Railtrack and the 25 train operators, who have been summoned for a meeting on 26 November with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, are blaming each other for poor levels of reliability and punctuality.

One railway source said: "The train operators are steaming mad [at Railtrack]."

Go-Ahead Group, which operates Thameslink and Thames Trains, was angered after Railtrack said that it was to blame for only 35 per cent of delays, while 65 per cent were the fault of the train firms.

Go-Ahead said Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, "should concentrate on getting his own operation to perform before pontificating". Go-Ahead added that Railtrack was responsible for 80 per cent of delays on both its franchises.

Currently, operators pay Railtrack for access to the railway lines, of which about 90 per cent is fixed. The train companies then receive subsidy from - or pay a fee to - the Treasury to run their services and may then receive money or be penalised under the incentive scheme.

Railtrack wants a new "economic architecture" for the rail system. Subsidy would depend on performance. A spokesman said the company was trying to "add to the debate about what is the best framework for punctuality".