Rail passengers may have to wait another five years before the network returns to the levels of reliability experienced before the Hatfield disaster in 2000, the industry regulator warned yesterday.
But there were signs that even that low target may not be achieved as the Government signalled its intention to haggle with rail chiefs over the cost of maintaining the network.
The Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor, announced yesterday that Network Rail would need £22.7bn to maintain the system "competently and efficiently" over the next five years.
That is nearly £8bn more than ministers envisaged and it is expected the Government will seek to put pressure on Network Rail and Mr Winsor to reduce the estimate substantially by postponing some projects and cutting the standard of work on others.
But Mr Winsor, who will publish his final figure in December, has already cut £12bn from the sum requested by Network Rail in March.
Further horse trading over the railways will infuriate passengers, who are forced to travel in increasingly overcrowded trains, of which only about four out of five arrive on time.
Mr Winsor said Network Rail would get the £22.7bn only if it improved performance and made the costly West Coast Mainline project more efficient. Mr Winsor said that, although Network Rail and the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) had proposed £1bn in savings, he still had "major concerns about the overall efficiency of the project after September 2004".
Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, said there were more savings to be made. "I don't think we have got to the end of the road as far as efficiencies are concerned," he said. "Before we ask anyone to put their hands into their pockets, we have to be satisfied that every pound we spend on the railways actually brings a pound's worth of benefit - and that has not been the case in the past."
Mr Winsor conceded that Network Rail's performance had been "disappointing". He said that although the number of potentially disruptive incidents on the line had not risen, the length of delays caused by them had increased by up to 70 per cent. Network Rail needed to access railway management skills that appear to have been lost.
The Government is duty-bound to work within the final budget set by the Regulator. Under previous commitments it is unlikely that either passengers or train operators will be expected to pay more. Most of the money therefore will have to come from taxpayers.
Some cash under the Government's 10-year transport plan has not been allocated and ministers may expected the SRA to redirect money earmarked for "enhancements" on maintaining the network. Further borrowing by Network Rail could also be sanctioned.
Anthony Smith, national director of the Rail Passengers Council said passengers would be mystified. "While the fog clears in one area around Network Rail's finances, it only thickens in another while we try to work out who will pay for it. There are only two possible ways that this can be paid for - either fares go up, or the taxpayer has to foot a bigger bill.
"The alternative is that, if the money is not found, then services or improvement programmes may have to be cut. We would fight any suggestion that passengers pay more while performance improvements are not guaranteed. But cutting services or improvement plans goes against Government policy to get more passengers using trains. That really only leaves the taxpayer."Reuse content