Railtrack chief quits and fires broadside against Government

Railway Crisis: Shareholders prepare lawsuits over 'shoddy and unacceptable' treatment
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The Independent Online

Steve Marshall quit as chief executive of Railtrack yesterday and immediately launched a scathing attack on the Government over its "shoddy and unacceptable" treatment of the company and its shareholders.

The broadside came as several US investors prepared to sue the Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers, over his decision to place Railtrack in administration without any compensation for shareholders. Some UK shareholders may also join the legal action.

Several broking houses said that Railtrack, which was worth £1.5bn or 280p a share last Friday, was now probably worthless.

Fidelity Investments, the giant American fund management group which owns 4 per cent of Railtrack, warned it would take steps "to ensure shareholders recoup their investment". The other big US investor is Franklin Mutual, with just over 3 per cent.

In a biting attack on the role played by the Government in bringing Railtrack down, Mr Marshall said: "Commitments, whether financial or otherwise, are made to be kept, not broken." He said it was "an odd time for the state rug to be pulled from under us" when the company had made progress in improving its performance and accelerating the roll-out of the Train Protection Warning System.

The Railtrack chief executive also criticised the "intrusive and largely uncontrolled regulation" that the business had been subjected to and questioned whether there was still a job for the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor, now that Railtrack was being replaced by a not-for-profit trust.

In his statement on Sunday night announcing that Railtrack had been placed in administration, Mr Byers hinted at a major shake-up of the regulatory regime. He said that when parliamentary time allowed, legislation would be introduced "to rationalise the present regulatory structure to provide stronger strategic direction while reducing the burdens of day-to-day interference in the industry and a self-defeating system of penalties and compensation".

Although Mr Marshall has tendered his resignation, he intends to work his six months' notice period. "I am staying on for the good of everyone in the company and because it is my responsibility," he added.

John Robinson, Railtrack's chairman, spoke to the company's seven largest shareholders yesterday. Their reaction was said to vary from "shock and anger to outright rage".

Mr Robinson has been invited by Mr Byers to take over as chairman of Railtrack's successor company, although he has not made a decision and has a conflict of interest while he seeks to protect the position of Railtrack's shareholders.

Mr Robinson said Mr Marshall had used "strong language" in his resignation statement. He said he felt "very sorry" that Mr Marshall had chosen to quit but had to accept his decision.

Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, said that the demise of Railtrack should not be used as an excuse to renationalise the railways by the back door, or go back on plans for more private sector investment. "In truth, the record of the public sector was not particularly glorious. So we must steer clear of dogmatic suggestions that the public sector is better than the private sector or vice-versa," he said.

However, there are growing fears that the Government's treatment of Railtrack will jeopardise further private investment in the public transport system, in particular London Underground and the proposed Crossrail scheme to link Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street in east London with Paddington and Heathrow airport.