Dear Bob Horton

The new railway timetable (pounds 7.50) has so many errors that Railtra ck has had to print 300 pages of corrections
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The Independent Online
I could almost feel sorry for you. Inevitably, as chairman of Railtrack, you're going to have to take the can for the latest row over rail privatisation - the little hiccup with the national rail timetable - and there's part of me which wants to say that it's not all your fault.

I realise that Railtrack has taken charge of the timetable just as British Rail is being split asunder and sold off, and that, unavoidably, your first effort will have some errors. But surely to produce a 1,200-page timetable that needs 300 pages of amendments even before it comes into force represents a degree of incompetence that even BR never managed to achieve. The assiduous Barry Doe, the country's authority on rail timetables, says: "I've never seen anything like it. These are the worst mistakes in 30 years of analysing timetables".

My reason for almost having a bit of sympathy is that it is so easy to carp about rail privatisation. As I wrote a couple of years ago when privatisation was merely a complex flow diagram on a wall in the Department of Transport, "Every leaf on the line is going to be blamed on rail privatisation". The timetable cock-up is not entirely your fault. Apparently, Railtrack was trying to add extra details, such as engineering works, which made the task more complicated. And you have inherited a system that was ridiculous in the first place. The timetable was always immediately accompanied by a supplement correcting mistakes and then further supplements were issued - often unknown to its 44,000 purchasers - which had to be picked up from station booking offices. (This is no longer so, as in many big stations timetable sales have been contracted out to bookshops such as WH Smith, which are loath to hand out free supplements - but that's another tale).

But what killed off any lingering feeling of sympathy was that Railtrack is apparently charging the 25 train-operating companies pounds 100,000 for the job of producing the timetable. Now the whole point of a railway is that it is an integrated network that requires an overall timetable in order to enable passengers to go on the kind of long journeys for which rail is an excellent alternative to road. Therefore, producing a national timetable is an essential part of running a railway and should be part of Railtrack's public service.

Of course, that's what's missing. The very notion of "public service" has long been subsumed into the obsession with commercialism and profitability, as Railtrack is being prepared for privatisation. Nothing is free any longer, as the "internal market" within the railways dominates. Everything must be paid for and accounted for as it goes through the system. That has led to a whole host of crazy anomalies, many of which are down to Railtrack's "commercial" decisions. Only the other day I was stuck on an InterCity train while the local slow services whizzed gaily by on the neighbouring track. The guard told me that "in the old days" we would have been diverted on to the slow track, but these days Railtrack charges extra for that and, therefore, we had to sit it out.

So, as chairman, Bob, I'm afraid it's down to you. Maybe, in the interest of good public relations, you should start picking those leaves off the line now.

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