If imposed, the fines would be the first punishment for Railtrack, which has been the subject of repeated complaints from the regulator. In the year to last April, trains were delayed by 27.9 million minutes with Railtrack blamed for 8.6 million minutes of delay.
Railtrack said yesterday that the new targets were "unreasonable".
Mr Bolt has told Railtrack to reduce delays for which it was responsible by 14.4 per cent by March 2000. Railtrack reduced them by 2 per cent in 1998-99 - well below its agreed target figure of 7.5per cent.
Rather than be forced to make up this shortfall in 1999-2000 and achieve a further 7.5 per cent reduction, Railtrack asked Mr Bolt if it could spread the shortfall over three years. But yesterday the regulator insisted that Railtrack make good the shortfall by the end of 1999-2000 - and also reduce the delay it causes to trains in its Great Western zone by 20 per cent. He said in a letter to Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett: "I do not accept your point that it is not now possible to change targets midway through the year."
In a separate statement he added: "I am disappointed that Railtrack only achieved a 2 per cent reduction in minutes delay per passenger train in 1998-99, against the agreed target of 7.5per cent. I consider that over the two-year period (to March 2000), Railtrack should be achieving the improvement to which it committed itself in January this year."
This was for a further 7.5 per cent per annum improvement in the current year, on top of last year's target. "Passengers every right to expect that this improvement will be delivered," added Mr Bolt.
Mr Bolt's officials warned that any penalty imposed would be calculated to have sufficient impact to focus the company's mind to resolving the issue. One said: "It will be sufficiently severe to encourage the company to correct its errors." Current legislation allows a potentially unlimited fine with further financial penalties for continuing failure.
Railtrack knows that the situation, despite pounds 1.45bn investment last year and pounds 1.6bn projected for this year, looks set to get worse. A one per cent rise in trains has historically brought with it a 2.5 per cent increase in delays.Railtrack said yesterday: "We have always had the view that, with the growth on the railways, a 15 per cent delay reduction target is unrealistic. But we will have to sit down and see what our next step is in response to the regulator."
Mr Bolt also said he had formally requested to see Railtrack's infrastructure plans for providing more capacity on the West Coast Main Line. The extra capacity, including new signalling and track work, is part of pounds 2.1bn plan which will see Richard Branson's Virgin Rail company introduced high-speed tilting trains on the London to Scotland route.Reuse content