Railtrack 'cutbacks' blamed for fresh chaos

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Britain's rail network is facing the threat of renewed chaos because of a resurgence of the track safety problems that led to its near-collapse after the Hatfield accident.

Train operating companies say part of the blame lies with a reduction in the money being spent on routine maintenance following Stephen Byers' decision to place Railtrack in administration.

The problem, known as "rolling contact fatigue", has reared up in several parts of the regional train network, resulting in a sharp rise in the speed restrictions which caused so much disruption in the aftermath of Hatfield.

It also emerged today that Railtrack will remain in administration for about a month longer than planned.

Railtrack was due to come out of administration in September, but Ernst & Young, which is overseeing management of the company, said the deadline would be extended by four to six weeks because of delays in working out a long-term business plan.

National Express, Britain's biggest train operator, said yesterday that the number of speed restrictions imposed on its areas of the network had risen by almost 20 per cent in the past six months to 535.

"We have seen very little improvement in Railtrack's performance and in some cases it is worse," said Phil White, the chief executive of National Express. "Putting the company into administration cannot have helped the process. There appears to have been some tightening of the belt when it comes to spending on maintenance and that cannot help in dealing with speed restrictions on the network."

At the height of the post-Hatfield crisis 18 months ago, there were as many as 1,200 speed restrictions in force. Railtrack said last night that the number had come down to between 650-680. But it admitted that the figure had "plateaued" with speed restrictions rising in some weeks.

A spokesman put the problem down to greater knowledge among its engineers of the phenomenon of "gauge corner cracking" – the cause of the Hatfield crash in October 2000 in which 10 people died – or rolling contact fatigue as it is now known.

However, he denied Railtrack was spending less money on the problem, saying the maintenance budget was scheduled to rise by 20 per cent this year and a further 12 per cent next year. Last year the budget was £706m.

Railtrack's attempts to overcome the dangers posed by rolling contact fatigue focussed initially on high-speed intercity lines where restrictions were causing the greatest number of delays. National Express said the track problems and speed restrictions it was now enduring were most acute on its regional passenger franchises – ScotRail, Central Trains, and West Anglia Great Northern.

Mr White said: "Our passengers want reliability, punctuality, polite staff and clean stations. It is not rocket science but you have got to get the track working in the first place. If the M1 was constantly being dug up you would get traffic jams very quickly."

The accountants now running Railtrack, Ernst & Young, disclosed that Mr Byers would miss the September deadline for bringing the company out of administration. A spokesman for the administrators said they had set a new target of the end of December.

The latest hold up has been caused by a delay in finalising a new five-year plan for Railtrack. Without this, potential bidders cannot put in offers to take over the network.