Rail chiefs are blamed for series of errors over unreliable new trains

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The Independent Online

Rail chiefs are severely criticised today for the "catalogue of blunders" that has beset the introduction of new passenger trains costing more than £4bn.

The National Audit Office, Parliament's spending watchdog, says too little planning went into buying the 4,500 new carriages, orders were placed too late and when the trains were finally delivered they were either unable to enter service or suffered horrendous reliability problems.

Much of the criticism is directed at the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), which was responsible for managing the overall programme, but the report is also critical of manufacturers, train-operating companies and Railtrack, which has been replaced by Network Rail.

The total cost of the new trains was £4.2bn, of which £760m has been met directly by the taxpayer through subsidies to the train operators. The audit office estimates that the taxpayer will have to pay a further £7.2m for delays in bringing 300 of the carriages into use because of inadequate power supplies in the south of England. It says that compensation for passengers has been secured in just two of the 23 cases in which trains have been delivered late.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: "It has been a catalogue of blunders so far. The results are all too clear. Thousands of passengers are condemned to continue travelling on the overcrowded, grubby slam-door trains which they had been led to expect would be replaced.

"It is clear that many public and private sector organisations in the rail industry involved in introducing new trains are not working with a common purpose and resolve. On behalf of railway passengers everywhere, the SRA must bang some heads together to get results."

The report says the SRA's forerunner, the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, brought forward the phasing out of slam-door trains by three years to December 2004 without any evidence that the date was feasible. It takes an average of two and a half years between placing a contract and bringing a train into service, but 1,000 of the carriages were not ordered by train operators until 2002 or 2003.

South West Trains, which has the largest number of new trains on order, approached Railtrack in early 2000 to discuss the need for platform extensions, but Railtrack did not approach the SRA until the summer of 2001 to express concern about the ability of the network in southern England to handle the new trains. It took a further year for the £1.2bn upgrade of the power supply to begin; it is not due to be completed until the end of this year.

About a quarter of the trains that have begun carrying passengers have reliability problems, the most common being mechanical breakdown and failure of computer software and air-conditioning systems. In five out of six case studies carried out by the audit office reliability levels were undershooting those agreed when orders were first signed. First North Western's fleet has suffered one failure every 4,200 miles; the target was one failure every 43,500 miles.

Although the audit office says reliability is improving, it is still worse than that of the old rolling stock in four franchises: Virgin Cross Country, Central Trains, Arriva Trains Northern and c2c, which operates services between London, Tilbury and Southend.

The SRA said it had introduced a new rolling stock strategy last December which took on board many of the criticisms and recommendations.