Christmas cards could be next victim of rail disruption, warns Post Office

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The Independent Online

The twin curses of chaos on the railways and torrential rain have already ruined daily life for commuters, farmers, homeowners and holidaymakers. Christmas could be next.

The twin curses of chaos on the railways and torrential rain have already ruined daily life for commuters, farmers, homeowners and holidaymakers. Christmas could be next.

The Post Office said last night the unprecedented disruption of the rail system could force it to bring forward its last posting dates for Christmas.

At least 10 million letters a day are already being delayed as Railtrack struggles to repair up to 200 miles of potentially unsafe track. The Post Office sends about 20 million letters by rail each night, a figure which doubles during December.

A spokesman said the Post Office fears that unless the current programme of repairs and track closures is completed by early next month, the Royal Mail faces delays to tens of millions of cards and packages."The past two weeks have been horrendous for everyone but the Royal Mail is the biggest single customer of the rail system, with very, very large amounts of mail travelling by rail," the spokesman said.

One night last week, 57 of the 58 mail trains arrived more than 30 minutes late.

Railtrack could not say whether the current programme of repairs, which has been made more difficult by flooding, track subsidence and embankment collapses due to the weather, would delay Christmas deliveries.

The Post Office spokesman said: "If we don't get a significant improvement, then clearly the Christmas operation is going to be affected."

Railtrack confirmed its works programme would continue until after Christmas but said it hoped to finish most inspections by Thursday, when it presents a "recovery programme" to the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.

The company insisted it would work out the least disruptive programme possible for all operators. "We would hope it wouldn't come to Christmas cards being late," a Railtrack spokesman said.

He said the "huge programme" to lay 20 miles of new track yesterday had not been badly affected, despite predictions that the fresh bout of rain and strong winds could seriously delay work.

But the track work, flooding and continuing speed restrictions meant long delays and cancellations yesterday. Some operators in the Midlands and West Country cancelled up to half their services. Services west of Bristol, south-west of Birmingham, west of Leeds and in Staffordshire were replaced by buses. GNER's East Coast main line services were disrupted as engineers attempted to re-lay more than seven miles of track south of Durham. Lines near Glasgow, Dumfries, Penrith, Runcorn, Warrington, Carlisle, Kettering, Luton, St Albans, Orpington and Reading were closed.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, the Transport minister, again refused to give Gerald Corbett, the chief executive of Railtrack, his "full confidence", even though Mr Corbett and his staff were working hard to resolve the crisis.

"What we said is we want stability and continuity inside Railtrack," the minister told GMTV. "Coming out of a business background, I don't like to see politicians interfering with companies and saying who their chief executive or chairman should be."

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