Railtrack may face pounds 1.2m bill over lax track maintenance

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Railtrack may be sued for more than pounds 1m after an "administrative error" resulted in lack of maintenance that caused several weeks of chaos for thousands of rail passengers in south London and the South-east.

Services on Network SouthCentral, one of the 25 train operators being prepared for privatisation, were severely disrupted in April and May because of Railtrack's failure to maintain the track properly. As a result, the wheels on NSC's 250 train sets started wearing out at up to 10 times the normal rate and at one point a quarter of the trains were out of service having their wheels reground or refitted.

Graham Eccles, the director of NSC, which operates trains between Victoria and south London and the south coast, said that while there were few cancellations, a lot of trains had to be run at half their normal length, causing inconvenience and delays. He said: "Already in south London a lot of our trains are full and having four carriages instead of eight meant a lot of people couldn't get on the first train or they travelled in unsatisfactory conditions. We have no idea how much revenue we lost because people found our trains too uncomfortable and crowded, and went back to using cars." Gatwick Express trains were also affected but to a lesser extent

The problem was caused by the failure of Railtrack to ensure that the curves on rails were being greased properly. To prevent flanges on train wheels being worn down, curves on rails are fitted with grease guns which are operated by the wheels of trains going over them. However, for several weeks it appears that large numbers of the grease guns were not being replenished with lubricant due to an administrative error by Railtrack.

NSC said not only did it lose a considerable amount of passenger revenue, but also the repairs to the trains were very expensive. Mr Eccles said: "New wheels for a train set cost around pounds 45-pounds 50,000. While you can sometimes reprofile the wheels without replacing them, even that costs pounds 15,000 and can only be done a limited number of times before replacement." The separation of Railtrack from the train operators is a result of privatisation plans which has led to the creation of formal contractual arrangements between all the different parts of the railway. The Government wants to sell off Railtrack as a whole through flotation on the stock exchange, while the train operations are being franchised out to private companies.

While Railtrack has launched an investigation into the error, its managers blame the South Western Infrastructure Management Unit, its contractor which is responsible for maintenance on the NSC's lines. SWIMU is also being prepared for privatisation but is still owned by British Rail. One manager likened Railtrack's position to being the meat in a sandwich between two different parts of British Rail since NSC is also still part of BR.

While Mr Eccles refused to confirm whether legal action would be taken, the Independent has learnt from industry sources that NSC is seeking pounds 1.2m compensation from Railtrack and is preparing a legal action in case Railtrack refuses to pay. Railtrack will be anxious to avoid any legal action since this may jeopardise the already tight privatisation schedule.