It cost pounds 3m of public cash. Now Railtrack is to knock it down

Signal failure: Hi-tech electronic centre built five years ago faces demolition because privatised operator says it is redundant
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A pounds 3m signalling centre built five years ago and never used may have to be demolished because a change in policy by Railtrack has made it redundant.

The grey metal building next to the station in Gillingham, Kent, was to have been one of a network of "integrated electronic control centres", a new type of signal box which involved staff sitting at visual display units rather than having to look at a large display board.

Until recently, the centre was planned to be one of up to around half a dozen controlling trains in Kent and south-east London. Now Railtrack has decided to use the existing accommodation at Ashford, in Kent, for the centre.

The waste of assets built at public expense by newly privatised Railtrack will enrage critics of the privatisation process and will be a major embarrassment to the company.

Visiting the site, The Independent found a sign in an empty car park saying visitors should "dial 2348". The woman who answered said some staff were there "but no decision had been taken on whether they are going to use it".

However, The Independent has been told by a senior railway source that the decision not to make use of the control centre has been made and Railtrack property board is desperately trying to find a tenant: "As it's purpose built, it is unlikely they will find anyone and they have said that it will then be demolished."

The decision not to use the centre was taken for both technical and logistical reasons. Part of the problem is that the specialised technology which was to have been used in the building has now been dropped in favour of a more modern computer application which takes up less room and can therefore be undertaken from other control centres.

The fate of the control centre was sealed when Railtrack decided recently to merge its south and south-west zones into a new southern zone, covering British Rail's old Southern Region. This merged the Gillingham signalling area with the zone covered by Ashford, making it logical and cheaper for it to be controlled from one point.

A spokeswoman for Railtrack said that a final decision had yet to be taken, but that options were being considered "because the technology has moved on and Gillingham is no longer necessarily the best place to have a control centre". She confirmed that the merger of the two zones made it unnecessary to have two centres.

Glenda Jackson, Labour's transport spokeswoman, said: "Every day we get examples of taxpayers' money being wasted rather than being spent on investment in the rail network."