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'Ghost trains' that run on the wrong tracks

AFTER leaves on the line and the wrong sort of snow comes the ultimate excuse: rail services in the West Midlands are being delayed or cancelled, it is claimed, because British Rail has pinched its own trains.

The trains in question are 59 Sprinters, refitted at a cost of pounds 4m by Centro, commercial arm of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority, to improve local services between Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. Painted in Centro's distinctive green and yellow livery, they were to replace outdated and unreliable rolling stock and were to be used exclusively on the local services, which Centro pays BR pounds 26m a year to run. BR had another 23 Sprinters painted in the same livery.

Trains bearing the Centro colours are now seen as far afield as Aberystwyth, Oxford and Yarmouth. But back in the West Midlands, services are still subject to cancellations and delays, and those that do run still use the old- fashioned rolling stock.

At a recent meeting of the transport authority, councillors claimed they were being 'ripped off' and 'asset-stripped' by BR. Steve Eling, a local councillor who sits on the authority, said: 'Services in the West Midlands are being cancelled while the trains we bought to operate them are being diverted by BR to the four corners of Britain.'

Bob Tarr, director general of Centro, added that BR 'seems to be turning out trains on an almost random basis'.

BR's own performance figures for the four weeks up to 20 June show that 16.8 per cent of trains were either delayed or cancelled. Of the 877 services cancelled, 533 did not run because the trains were being used 'to fill in the gaps left by other scheduled trains being cancelled'. BR also said that 'in previous weeks trains were cancelled at a rate of approximately 50-60 per day'.

Centro's John Fallon said: 'The cancellation rates are equivalent to losing an entire day's service each month. We had agreed a performance rate of 1 per cent for cancellations. BR's figures are nearly five times that.'

A BR spokesman acknowledged that Centro had 'received a raw deal'. He added: 'In the past there has been a tendency to use anything fit for service, regardless of livery or ownership.' But change is promised. Chris Hogan, district operations manager for Regional Railways Central, a new BR section, said: 'We have taken action to ensure that there is greater discipline in the allocation of Centro-funded units to Centro routes.'

Centro appears to have no means of penalising BR for its poor performance, or of retrieving any of the money paid for services that did not run. A spokesman said last week: 'Even though the current agreement does not stipulate a means of withholding money, it clearly cannot be right for us to pay British Rail for such an appalling service.

'Next week we will be seeking approval from the transport authority to withhold payments for those services that did not run.'

The legal ramifications of such an action remain unclear, but BR could forfeit more than pounds 150,000.