Railtrack cash plan falls flat

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Plans for a 10-year, pounds 17bn spending spree on the nation's railways were attacked by the industry regulator yesterday after intervention by the watchdog saw his office launch an immediate investigation into the "commitments" to passengers.

Railtrack, which owns Britain's stations and signalling, published its spending programme, which it described as "a blueprint to regenerate the railways". But John Swift QC, the regulator, said the programme contained "very few firm commitments to deliver significant improvements" for passengers and freight customers.

Mr Swift said he would find out if train operators thought Railtrack's management statement met their needs. He received strong backing from the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who welcomed Mr Swift's action. Industry observers say the plans contain little new money for the network. Despite the headline figure, pounds 16bn was promised last year and a further pounds 640m is part of a deal with Richard Branson's Virgin group to upgrade the west coast line.

The ride for passengers is also set to get worse. Railtrack identified 15 congestion hot-spots on the network. Despite this, the situation will not improve until 2002 at the earliest. Sir Robert Horton, Railtrack chairman, said: "There are real congestion problems at certain times of the day and these have to be overcome. The problem is in part the need for ever- increasing numbers of passengers on the network." Paul Prescott, a Railtrack director, said: "Some train companies require to grow by 10 per cent a year."

However this increase in "train miles" has adversely affected punctuality. Figures show an increasing number of poorly performing train services. "This is due to a 5-per-cent increase in train miles," said Mr Prescott.

Aslef, the train-drivers' union, has long criticised Railtrack for its safety record and yesterday Lew Adams, general secretary, said it was launching its own initiative which would see drivers "moderating their speed" over track they considered "dangerous".