Lawyers on the track of privatisation muddle

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Recent incidents on British Rail have highlighted the complexities of tracing legal responsibilities between the new rail bodies that have been created for privatisation, writes Christian Wolmar.

Thousands of rail passengers will be compensated for the disruption caused by a tractor and muck-spreader that fell on to the West Coast main line 10 days ago.

Meanwhile, civil action may follow the fire on the InterCity train at Maidenhead on Friday which led to the death of one man.

However, who pays the eventual bills may not be known until litigation between the various organisations into which British Rail has been split is resolved.

Previously, British Rail did not generally push for compensation in cases such as the West Coast line delays but now, with the railway being split up into many companies in readiness for privatisation, all parties affected by such incidents will resort to legal action.

Compensation, thought to be in the order of several tens of thousands of pounds, will be paid to passengers who apply for refunds as a result of delays. Although InterCity West Coast is not required to pay compensation under the terms of the Passenger's Charter because the delays were caused by circumstances out of its control, it has agreed to do so in an effort to retain customer loyalty.

About 5,000 passengers were delayed for several hours that night and many more had their journeys disrupted for shorter periods on the following day.

Under the terms of the Passenger's Charter, those delayed by an hour or more will receive 20 per cent refunds, and an ICWC spokesman said: "Some customers may get more."

As under the new disaggregated railway, Railtrack is responsible for the track, ICWC will be claiming a reimbursement of some of its track- access charges from Railtrack. However, this will not be sufficient to meet the total cost of compensation - as the amount depends on the contract between the two parties and not on the extent of revenue lost.

Railtrack is examining the possibility of claiming compensation from the farmer, Mark Gardener, whose tractor and muck-spreader plunged 40 feet on to the line when it went out of control while the driver was loading it. A Railtrack spokeswoman said it may have a claim on Mr Gardener because the tractor damaged cabling, but the law is confused.

These complexities may not apply to Friday night's fire on the InterCity train at Maidenhead because the responsibility appears to be entirely with the train operator, Great Western Trains. The fire will be the responsibility of GWT which, like all other train operators, is still in British Rail's hands.