Blow to west coast line as manager quits

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The Independent Online

The multi-billion pound project to upgrade the flagship west coast main rail line between London and Glasgow suffered another serious blow yesterday when the man in charge of the scheme quit.

Although Railtrack emphasised that Tony Fletcher, general manager of the operation, was leaving to further his career, it is understood that he had become increasingly frustrated with his job.

Meanwhile it emerged that taxpayers will be landed with a bill for an extra £500m after the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor, halved the charges paid by freight operators for access to the network.

The shift from the present "negotiation-based" approach to one based on tariffs comes after the decision to allow 44- tonne lorries on Britain's roads and concessions on vehicle and fuel duty which gave road transport a "competitive edge".

Mr Winsor said the move made a "positive contribution" to the Government's objective of securing substantial growth in rail freight delivering social and environmental benefits.

The decision by Mr Fletcher to move to the WS Atkins Rail as managing director follows the departure in June from the Railtrack board of Simon Murray, who was in overall charge of the modernisation of the national network.

The west coast project was initially costed at £2.2bn, then estimates rose to £4bn, before increasing last April to £6.3bn. Most observers, however, currently estimate the cost will be at least £7bn.

While it is now hoped that the first part of the programme to allow trains to run at 125mph will be completed by October next year, there is considerable doubt over Railtrack's ability to undertake the second phase, which is due for completion by 2007 and aimed at allowing trains to run at 140mph.

A spokesman for Railtrack, currently in administration before becoming a not-for-profit company, conceded that Mr Fletcher's job was one of the most demanding in the company. "He leaves with praise ringing in his ears. He received an offer he felt he could not refuse." However, colleagues of Mr Fletcher said he had finally come to the conclusion that the "game wasn't worth the candle".