Now even the rail timetable is late

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THOUSANDS OF train passengers are unable to book their journeys over Christmas and the new year because of the failure of the rail industry to bring out festive schedules in time.

Railtrack and the 25 passenger train companies face the threat of a fine from the Office of the Rail Regulator unless they sort out the timetables within two weeks. John Swift, the Regulator, said they had breached their contractual duty to publish schedules in time.

He has written to them demanding a report on the state of readiness and if they have not solved the problem by 25 November, Mr Swift said he would consider taking further regulatory action. It would probably mean fines.

Train operators are committed to providing train times 12 weeks ahead. There are now six weeks until Christmas Day. "The position has been reached where customers on many important routes cannot plan or book their travel arrangements over Christmas," Mr Swift said.

"This is unacceptable to me both because passengers are not receiving the service they are entitled to expect and because it may discourage them from using the railway altogether."

The problem relates to heavy maintenance work often carried out at quiet periods, such as Bank Holidays, which means trains have to be re- routed or rescheduled. Mr Swift was monitoring the way that Railtrack and the train firms were dealing with the problem but decided to intervene after he realised the situation was getting worse.

A spokesman for Railtrack said: "There certainly have been some problems in supplying all the information about Christmas services. This is due to the very intensive programme of heavy engineering work planned to take place over Christmas. Long-distance journeys have been sorted out, and it is only a very small amount of local journeys that we are still working on."

Yesterday's warning from the Rail Regulator came as a feud was growing between Railtrack and the train companies over who was to blame for this year's poor performance.

Mr Swift has publicly rebuked Railtrack for its claim that the only way to improve punctuality was to run fewer trains.

Railtrack also said that the train companies had no incentive to run trains well, only to run more of them. This week the train companies fought back, with Thameslink accusing Railtrack of "pontificating", while Chiltern accused Railtrack of not providing enough capacity as it revealed plans to cut a tenth of its peak timetable.

Railtrack, the train firms and the regulators have been called in for a "summit" meeting with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, on 26 November over the dismal state of the railways.

Railtrack and two sub- contracting companies - GT Railway Maintenance Ltd of Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, and Jarvis Fastline of Watton At Stone, Hertford, - are to be prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive after the alleged mis-routing of a high-speed train on to the wrong track at Kenilworth, Warwickshire, on 23 June 1997.