Rail watchdog has wrong kind of service

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The Independent Online
THE LETTER seemed to be like every other complaint about an appalling train journey - but this time the rail industry had encountered the wrong sort of commuter. And he was angry.

The commuter was John O'Brien, responsible for overseeing the passenger train franchises on the privatised railway, and his letter to Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, pulled no punches.

Mr O'Brien was angry at claims by Railtrack that the current poor performance on the railways was caused by the train companies not having any incentives to run trains well - only to run more of them.

But in his letter, which was leaked to the media, he used his own personal experience as a commuter from Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire to London Euston to hammer home his point. He said he suffered a "formidable range of problems" travelling on both Virgin and Silverlink trains using the southern end of the decaying West Coast main line between London and Scotland.

"Frankly, performance on this route has been quite appalling recently, with the majority of delays tracking back to areas which are your responsibility. Yesterday's gripe - my train was half an hour late because of points failure at Watford, again." He said it was "obvious that many delays had nothing to do with how far the operators are incentivised to provide a punctual service".

The Independent on Sunday last week revealed that Mr O'Brien had told Mr Corbett he was "manifestly wrong" when he claimed the train companies did not have enough incentives. His comments have forced into the open a simmering dispute between Railtrack and the train companies over who is to blame for the recent slump in performance.

Yesterday a spokesman for Silverlink said Mr O'Brien's comments "reflect those of Silverlink and those of our customers. We refute allegations that there are not enough incentives to perform better."

Mr O'Brien could be a local hero in Berkhamsted if the level of performance set by his train home last night marks a new standard. The 6.19pm from Euston left on time and arrived at 6.53pm - bang on schedule. There were no hold-ups, delays and the carriages were only a little overcrowded.

"I am delighted and I imagine all the people who have got here on time will be delighted." But he said that in the past few weeks the punctuality of the trains had slipped badly.

He said he was glad there was now a public debate about how to the railways should be regulated but said it was important that the rail industry worked out how delays were caused , rather than getting involved in mud-slinging.

The row between Railtrack and the train companies is likely to continue until next week when they attend a "summit meeting" with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

London's beleaguered Jubilee Line extension is likely to cost almost pounds 1bn more than originally planned.The Transport minister Glenda Jackson said last night that the cost of the link between central London and the Millennium Dome in Greenwich has escalated from pounds 1.9bn in 1993 to pounds 2.85bn - and could be higher.