Disruption on railway lines could be as bad as it was just after the Hatfield crash if the Government sticks to deadlines for the introduction of new safety equipment, according to network managers.
Some routes will be closed for up to 10 days, to install measures to prevent trains passing red lights, if the work is to be completed before 2011. The Cullen-Uff inquiry into train protection last week urged the Government to introduce the European train control system (ETCS) by 2008 to all tracks carrying trains at speeds of more than 100mph.
But network chiefs will argue that a more realistic deadline would be 2011, unless ministers are prepared for an outcry over the chaos caused by the necessary closure of essential lines. The industry believes that the cost of introducing the computer-based apparatus, between £2bn and £3bn, will increase substantially if it is to be ready by 2008.
Senior managers point out that suppliers would "hold us to ransom" if they knew companies were up against tough deadlines. Train companies will demand compensation for delays and cancellations caused by an accelerated programme of work. The managers argue that weekend closures of rail routes would not be sufficient to finish the project on time.
The inquiry report said the Government will have to foot the bill for ETCS, although Whitehall sources said there would be no "blank cheque".
Critics of the deadlines proposed by Cullen-Uff also say passengers would be forced into their cars by the increased disruption. The train drivers' union, Aslef, and the rail consultant Peter Rayner, however, believe that full train protection can be installed even quicker than the proposed deadlines.
Talks on the deadlines will be held within the next few months in meetings between ministers, Railtrack, train operators, the Strategic Rail Authority, the Rail Regulator and the Health and Safety Executive. However, the industry argues that the decision is a political one and must ultimately be made by the Government.
Today, ministers are expected to announce that Railtrack will be stripped of its option to build the second stage of the Channel Tunnel rail link. Instead, the lines will be finished in a public-private partnership involving Bechtel, a construction group from the United States.
The infrastructure company is building the first part of the route from the Kent coast to Gravesend, but the final stage to a new station at King's Cross will be built under the new management.
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is also expected to announce that Railtrack will be able to draw early on £1.5bn of taxpayers' money, which had been allocated for its maintenance budget over the next five years. Also, Great North Eastern Railways and Virgin will be invited to make fresh bids for the east coast main line franchise between King's Cross and Edinburgh.Reuse content