Network Rail given tough targets – and less cash to spend

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The Independent Online

The number of trains late or cancelled due to disruptive engineering works must be cut by a third under tough targets set by rail regulators – despite a £2bn cut in funding to do so.

Network Rail (NR), which maintains Britain's tracks and stations, has been told to reduce disruptions by more than a third, as well as reducing late and cancelled journeys by 20 per cent over the next five years. But it will have to do it with less money, after the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) said it was giving more than £2bn less funding than it had requested.

The five-year package includes £7.6bn worth of improvements to the network, the most high-profile of which is the linking of King's Cross to the Thameslink network, linking the South-east with lines to the North. It has also been given the job of rebuilding Reading and Birmingham New Street stations and improving speeds on the Midland main line. A new rail link to Glasgow airport will be built.

Some long-awaited schemes were not given the go-ahead, including the addition of an extra line between Swindon and Kemble, and refurbishment at Crewe station. ORR has handed Network Rail a £26.7bn funding package for the next five years, 8 per cent less than Network Rail said it needed.

Fears were raised yesterday that the investment programme may be hit by the credit crunch, as it was revealed that £4.4bn has to be raised from private financial markets. It will be more difficult for Network Rail to raise it now than six months ago – and it will be on far less favourable borrowing terms.

"We recognise that in this current turmoil we need to phase in the proposal for raising money over time," said ORR's chief, Bill Emery.

Network Rail will have to carry out the improvements while cutting its own costs after the ORR demanded a 21 per cent improvement in efficiency by 2014. ORR hinted it would hit executive bonuses as a result of missed targets.

NR said it was considering the settlement. It has the right to complain to the Competition Commission.

"We will take away today's determination and consider the implications," said Paul Plummer, director of planning and regulation at NR. "We must be sure these clearly-challenging targets and levels of investment are achievable and adequate to meet the growing demands on our railway."

"Passengers must remain at the centre of all funding debates," insisted Louise Ellman, chairwoman of the Commons Transport Committee. "We need a new structure for Network Rail which allows passengers a voice."

Gerry Doherty of the TSSA rail union said: "Improving punctuality will be meaningless if NR merely timetables longer journey times to meet targets as it has in the past."