Railtrack profits rise to a record pounds 1.3m every day

RAIL INDUSTRY Anger over infrastructure firm's growing revenue and its refusal to spend more cash on safety investment
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The Independent Online
RAILTRACK PROVOKED fresh fury yesterday after revealing record profits of more than pounds 1.3m a day and declaring that it did not intend to spend more money on safety in the wake of last month's Paddington crash.

The much-criticised infrastructure company said that while it would accelerate the introduction of a new train safety system, its expenditure on passenger protection would remain the same as a proportion of total income.

Speaking after the company posted half-year profits of pounds 236m, the chief executive, Gerald Corbett, said: "It's not necessarily true that spending more money is the answer, we have to get the processes right."

The company conceded that declaring its results so soon after the crash "could be interpreted as insensitive". It is understood that a board meeting ahead of the announcement considered freezing the shareholder dividend and declaring a lower profit.

Mr Corbett said that Railtrack would be introducing the train-protection warning system (TPWS) a year earlier than the 2003 target agreed with Government.

He agreed that the company's pounds 27bn investment programme over 10 years looked "inadequate" and indicated that it would be pushed up by a further pounds 6bn.

Mr Corbett said the expansion of the network would have to be paid for by higher track access charges levied on the train operators. This could mean fare increases or a rise in the level of public subsidies, now running at pounds 1.4bn a year.

The pressure group Save Our Railways said the results "confirmed that the taxpayers' subsidy to the rail industry is being scandalously misused".

Mr Corbett revealed that the number of signals passed at danger (Spads) had edged up since the Paddington disaster in which the driver of a Thames Trains service jumped a red light and was in collision with a Great Western express. The 31st victim died on Wednesday, on the eve of the company announcing profits some 5 per cent up on last year.

While the number of Spads declined year on year for the first six months of 1999, since then there had been "a slight increase", he said. He conceded that while he believed that trains were being driven more cautiously since the crash, there was no evidence to support the contention. It was possible that some drivers were "more tense" post-Paddington and that there were more new drivers on the network.

Referring to the accident, Mr Corbett said that there was an additional warning device near SN109 - the signal missed in west London. Not only did the driver pass the red light, he also ignored a screen at the side. The screen shows a large letter M or R when it is safe to proceed, but on this occasion was blank, meaning he should stop.

Mr Corbett confirmed that the quality of track throughout the system would not be back to the standard it achieved in 1994 until 2001. He said that the pre-privatisation Railtrack had been held to strict public spending limits by the Government between 1994 and 1996.

Railtrack was on course to meet the rail regulator's target of reducing train delays attributable to it by 12.7 per cent in the current financial year, despite previous contentions from management that it was an "unrealistic" target.

Railtrack also said it was scrapping plans to install a "next generation" signalling system on the West Coast mainline following severe problems with the technology.