Blair summons Corbett for talks on repairs 'blitz'

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The Independent Online

The head of Railtrack was summoned to Downing Street yesterday for urgent talks with the Prime Minister about the mounting problems with Britain's railways.

The head of Railtrack was summoned to Downing Street yesterday for urgent talks with the Prime Minister about the mounting problems with Britain's railways.

Tony Blair sought assurances from Railtrack's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, that the travelling public would face minimal disruption during repairs to Britain's poorly maintained rail system and the broken rails that are paralysing the rail network.

The Prime Minister wanted a guarantee that repairs would be carried out quickly and that travellers would receive better information about anticipated delays. In the meeting at Downing Street, Mr Blair stressed "the importance of striking a sensible balance between vital safety work and the need to keep the network moving".

Earlier this week, Railtrack warned of worsening delays, with speed restrictions imposed on more than 300 sites on the country's railways because engineers have discovered 1,850 cracked rails, the repair of which necessitates line closures.

The half-hour meeting, which was also attended by the Transport minister Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, took place yesterday morning before the Prime Minister left for an official visit to Madrid for talks with the Spanish Prime Minister, José Maria Aznar.

Mr Corbett assured Mr Blair that by the middle of next week, assessments of the amount of work required on the rail system would be complete. Mr Blair insisted "clear and timely information is key, so that members of the public can make travel plans", and stressed the need for "maximum openness" with the public to ensure minimal disruption and inconvenience.

However, the Prime Minister fell short of rebuking Mr Corbett for the rail network problems, which included a further derailment on Thursday at Virginia Water, Surrey, caused by wet leaves on the line.

A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Blair believed the "rail industry is doing the best it can in difficult circumstances". He added: "[Mr Blair recognises] that of necessity it has been very difficult to give people the clarity they want... Gerald Corbett is carrying out an important job at the moment and trying to resolve the problems that are the result of decades of under-investment in the railways."

Next week, John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will meet members of the rail industry to seek assurances that a recovery plan for the railways is on track.

Railtrack was told it must inspect the rail system to assess the need for repairs after the recent fatal Hatfield crash which was caused by cracked rails.

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