Byers tries to blame Railtrack for delays

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Stephen Byers clashed with train operators yesterday over who was to blame for the autumn rail chaos amid predictions of more misery to come. The Secretary of State for Transport placed much of the responsibility on directors of Railtrack who, he said, were arguing for the interests of the bankrupt company rather than running the railway.

But George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said Railtrack administration was not "a material factor" in the high number of delays and cancellations in the three months to 31 December.

The dispute followed the release of figures that showed only 71.2 per cent of trains ran on time during that period. That was seven percentage points better than the similar period in 2000 when the industry was disrupted on a scale unprecedented in peace time because of the Hatfield disaster, but considerably worse than previous years. In October-December 1997 the figure was 86 per cent, in 1998 it was 81 per cent and in 1999, 81.5 per cent.

Mr Muir, and Anthony Smith of the Rail Passengers' Council, agreed Railtrack has been "getting its act together" and train operators must accept more responsibility for disruption. The proportion of delays and cancellations for which Railtrack are responsible was coming down, Mr Muir conceded.

He said the difficulty of keeping ageing rolling stock in working order was affecting the performance of train companies and so was congestion on the network. The shortage of drivers was also a problem, although Mr Muir believed that the industry would attain the establishment figure of 9,600 drivers in six months.

Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passengers' Council, said the poor performance figures masked Railtrack's improving performance and the difficulties train companies experienced in delivering "any sort of sustained punctuality".

Mr Muir said early indications in the new year showed encouraging signs of improvement. The network is said to be achieving 85 to 86 per cent reliability.

Theresa May the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "Things had been improving over last summer, and then, following Stephen Byers' action to pull the plug on Railtrack, we've seen a dramatic fall in performance with these increased train delays."

Mr Byers agreed the figures made "grim reading". He told the Today programme on Radio Four: "Clearly the fact that Railtrack was taken into administration is bound to have a consequence. And we do know the senior executives of Railtrack were arguing for the interests of shareholders rather than perhaps concentrating on running the railway network."

Also issued yesterday were government statistics showing the average age of trains in the October-December 2001 period was 20.07 years, slightly lower than the 22.34-year figure for April-June 2001. Passenger complaints fell 7.4 per cent.

¿ A train driver whose demotion to ticket inspector led to strike action told an employment tribunal in Croydon yesterday he was branded a "communist" by rail bosses determined to persecute him because of his union activities.

Greg Tucker, 48, claims he was unfairly dismissed from his £31,000-a-year post with South West Trains. He was demoted to a £15,000-a-year job after breaches in safety, including driving at 96mph in a 90mph zone. The hearing continues.