Rail lines may close to cut £54bn repair bill

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The Independent Online

Whole stretches of railway line could be closed for extended periods for repairs under plans unveiled yesterday to cut the soaring cost of renewing the network.

Whole stretches of railway line could be closed for extended periods for repairs under plans unveiled yesterday to cut the soaring cost of renewing the network.

Network Rail put the bill for maintaining the railways at £54bn over the next decade and said that as part of a cost-saving plan it would shed 2,000 jobs by 2006.

The government-backed body also said that it had been asked to examine a number of more drastic options for cutting costs by the Strategic Rail Authority. One of these involves "blockading" lines for extended periods to do maintenance and track renewal work. This has been the approach taken at weekends on the west coast main line, where the cost of modernising the route is now put at £10bn.

Another possible solution is to give priority to mainten-ance work on inter-city routes and commuter lines in the South-east over "secondary" lines such as rural and freight routes, whose performance would thus decline.

Despite the surge in the cost of maintaining the railways, Network Rail says punctuality will not return to the level before the October 2000 Hatfield crash until 2007, and one in 10 trains will still be running late in 2013.

The target for this year is to increase the number of trains running on time from 79 per cent to 82 per cent at the same time as reducing the incidence of signal failures and broken rails. Ian Coucher, Network Rail's deputy chief executive, said the punctuality targets were not tough enough and new, more demanding ones would be submitted later in the year. If this year's targets were not met, Mr Coucher added, then the company would have failed and he would expect the Government and board to replace the management team.

Network Rail said it was aiming for a 20 per cent improvement in efficiency by 2006-07 and cumulative savings of £13bn over the 10-year period of its business plan. The 2,000 job losses from a workforce of 14,000 are expected to be through voluntary means.

Confirmation of the job losses came a week after news that directors of Network Rail received more than £1m in bonuses last year even though train performance deteriorated. Bob Crow, general secretary of the biggest rail union, the RMT, warned of possible industrial action in the event of compulsory redundancies. "The budget cuts announced today are scandalous," he added. "We are all for efficiency but cutting billions of pounds from the renewals and maintenance budgets is not the way to do it."

Tim Collins, the Conservatives' transport spokesman, said the demand for £54bn was "astonishing and deeply alarming. Passengers and taxpayers are being forced to hand over more and more cash for ever-worsening rail services."

Spending is planned to fall from £6.1bn this year to £4.3bn by 2012-13. Network Rail said that it expected to be achieving efficiency savings of £1.3bn a year by 2007 and £2.1bn by 2012-13.

Even with the cost savings, Network Rail expects to spend £27bn in the five-year period up to 2006 - £11bn more than budgeted for by its predecessor, Railtrack. Mr Coucher said that 600-700 miles of track would be replaced in the next 12 months compared with the 100 miles renewed in Railtrack's last year.