Railtrack fines could total pounds 90m

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RAILTRACK'S FORTUNES fell to a new low yesterday with the disclosure that the companycould face further fines of pounds 50m for failing to maintain its crumbling network.

The new fines, on top of the threatened pounds 40m penalty for late trains, would take a 20 per cent slice out of Railtrack's pounds 428m annual profits.

Last week, the new rail regulator, Tom Winsor, warned the company - which is responsible for the track infrastructure - that "the days of empty promises are over", adding: "The time has come to take action to make the privatised railways treat the travelling public with the same respect as they treat their shareholders."

He said Railtrack would face fines of more than pounds 40m if it failed to reduce its share of train delays by 12.7 per cent by March next year. The announcement came a day after the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee said train punctuality was 30 per cent worse last year, with complaints at a record high.

Mr Winsor has already stressed that his appointment by the Government last month will bring about "tougher and more effective" regulation. Some experts think last week's warning could be just the start of a string of penalties for shortcomings in the service.

A spokesman for Mr Winsor's office insisted yesterday that reports of the additional pounds 50m were "speculative", but added that his office was discussing a "number of problem areas" with Railtrack.

A key issue has been Railtrack's delay to the pounds 2 billion West Coast Mainline modernisation project, which is thought to be running up to 12 months behind schedule.

Another important subject is track maintenance. Less than a fortnight ago Mr Winsor wrote to Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, after the Health and Safety Executive's announcement that the number of broken rails in the system had risen by 21 per cent to 973. Mr Winsor warned him enforcement action would be taken if Railtrack was considered to be in breach of its licence.

A spokesman for the regulator said yesterday the matter had been a subject of discussion since Railtrack produced its network management statement in March. He said the regulator's office had been consulting the industry about a report by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton. Its findings were highly detrimental, insisting that the company had allowed the network to deteriorate below the standards it inherited from British Rail. "No decisions have yet been taken as to what action is necessary to make Railtrack meet its targets," he said.

However, should Railtrack fail to comply with the regulator on all these matters, enforcement notices and threats of multi-million-pound fines could be issued.

A spokesman for Railtrack said: "We will be speaking with the regulator about all these issues and we are committed to improving all our performance targets as well as the network in the future."

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