Railtrack warned over Glasgow line plan delays

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The Independent Online
RAILTRACK WAS threatened with massive fines yesterday by Tom Winsor, the rail regulator, after repeatedly failing to deliver plans for a pounds 2bn upgrade of the West Coast main line.

Mr Winsor has started enforcement action, deeply concerned that there may be some "slippage" in the scheme to upgrade the main West Coast line between London and Glasgow - Europe's biggest rail project.

Mr Winsor told the infrastructure company that it must produce "robust" plans for the future of the line by February or face the possibility of an unlimited financial penalty.

The new row centres on a strategic review of the upgrade of the West Coast line on which Richard Branson's Virgin train company plans to run 125mph tilting trains by May 2002 and 140mph trains by 2005.

The work is meant to provide Virgin and other companies with a system which would allow more frequent services between the two cities. Train operators have inundated Mr Winsor with complaints about Railtrack's alleged lack of commitment to the development programme.

The infrastructure company was supposed to deliver a detailed dossier on how it was to complete the work. But it failed to reveal its strategy by last March, and missed a series of other deadlines including one which expired at 5pm on Thursday - the day Railtrack announced record profits amounting to pounds 1.3m a day.

Railtrack management has come under constant fire in the wake of the Paddington disaster a month ago in which 31 people died. Yesterday Mr Winsor added to the company's discomfiture, saying that by failing to complete a proper analysis, Railtrack was likely to breach its network licence. "I expect Railtrack to heed this warning. If Railtrack lets down train operators and funders, it will face even stronger enforcement action, including the possibility of a monetary penalty."

"Railtrack is highly competent and very professional. [It has] the talent and ability. I'm giving [the company] the will to get on with it."

He said it was his duty to ensure that the project was not "drifting", adding that he did not expect the business to violate the enforcement order because it was a responsible company which took its obligation seriously. Recently Mr Winsor warned the company that it could face a fine of pounds 40m unless it reduced the number of delays suffered by passengers and attributable to the company.

Mike Grant, chief executive of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, said he was disappointed that it had been necessary for the regulator to issue the "enforcement notice", but he fully supported him. "There is no doubt that we need Railtrack to do well. But this is all about the provision of information and this is about asking for information so judgements can be made," he said.

Work on the West Coast main line was to have helped provide more slots for freight services, but Gerald Corbett, chief executive of Railtrack, said that forecasts for goods services on the line were "over optimistic". It was therefore difficult to formulate plans.

Mr Winsor said the company needed to establish that the predictions were unrealistic. "All they have done is make assertions and assertions are not good enough."

Railtrack said it was "disappointed" over Mr Winsor's decision yesterday. Robin Gisby, the company's network development director, said: "This is an extremely complicated project involving a major upgrade of an operational railway and includes the introduction of leading edge technology in six years' time.

"We need to ensure that our plans are robust while also meeting all our commitments to the regulator and others. That is our intention and is the cornerstone of the current review which will be finalised by the end of the year."

Railtrack has until 10 December to comment on Mr Winsor's enforcement notice and has until February to produce a detailed review.

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