Railtrack told: improve or pay pounds 40m fine

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The Independent Online
THE RAIL Regulator is threatening to fine Railtrack more than pounds 40m after warning that frustrated passengers have waited "far too long" for better performance.

Tom Winsor said yesterday he would impose the huge penalty - the first issued by the regulator - unless Railtrack "gets its act together" and reduces train delays. Mr Winsor, appointed last month to kick the industry into shape, said he found it "remarkable" that the company had escaped such action since it was set up to run the privatised railway infrastructure nearly six years ago.

Issuing an enforcement order, Mr Winsor said: "The days of empty promises are over. The days when Railtrack say they will do something, and then don't do, it are over.

"Passengers have been waiting for far too long for better performance from the railway. They have heard numerous statements of good intentions. And promises of jam tomorrow." Mr Winsor went on: "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 stressed that the order, which instructs Railtrack to reduce delays to passenger trains by 12.7 per cent by the end of next year, was "not a request, it's a demand to concentrate their minds". In private, senior officials at the regulator's office went further by accusing Railtrack of attempting to "con" the public by the highly selective use of performance figures. Railtrack's reaction to the order was also attacked for the "complacency" it showed.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, welcomed the regulator's decision. "We now have a railway watchdog who not only barks, but bites on behalf of the passenge," he said.

The company, however, said it now faced a "huge hurdle". The announcement comes a day after the Central Rail Users' Consultative Committee revealed that train punctuality was 30 per cent worse last year and that complaints had hit a record high. The enforcement order means a penalty of pounds 4m will be levied for each percentage point by which the campany falls short of the 12.7 improvement target.

Officials calculate that the "fine" could amount to more than pounds 40m if the company only achieves the same rate of improvement as last year. The levy would fall to about pounds 20m if management hits its own target for this year of 7.5 per cent, but fails to make up last year's shortfall. It would be pounds 10m if Railtrack meets this year's objective and makes up half of last year's deficit.

Mr Winsor warned the company that reducing planned investment to find the money to pay the penalty would not be tolerated. That would result in further swift enforcement orders. Railtrack envisages pounds 27bn of investment over the next 10 years, but the regulator pointed out that pounds 16bn was earmarked solely for maintenance and not for improvement of track and signalling.