Railtrack had warned of risk on crash line

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The Independent Online

Britain's rail industry was in a state of disarray last night after the revelation that Railtrack knew six months ago about the "grave" state of the line near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where four people were killed in Tuesday's train disaster.

Britain's rail industry was in a state of disarray last night after the revelation that Railtrack knew six months ago about the "grave" state of the line near Hatfield, Hertfordshire, where four people were killed in Tuesday's train disaster.

The company named 81 sites throughout the country "with similar characteristics to that at the stretch of track" and imposed speed restrictions - as low as 20mph in some areas - as "a precautionary measure'. Railtrack was also revealed to have been planning to cut its track-renewal programme.

And, as senior rail executives held an emergency summit, another train was derailed. A Virgin Cross Country service travelling from Birmingham New Street came off the track outside Stafford station. No one was hurt.

Today, the Health and Safety Executive will rush out its interim report into Tuesday's crash. It is expected to confirm that a broken rail caused the Hatfield accident.

The letter from Railtrack to Balfour Beatty, the company contracted to maintain the track, identifies a long series of defects to the line, between King's Cross and Doncaster. It lists a whole series of defects which "had never been rectified" and "could lead to a derailment". It represented "a grave picture" which it said "must be addressed forthwith".

The letter was dated 19 April, signed by Sean Fugill, Railtrack's area asset manager, and addressed to Tony Walker of Balfour Beatty. Balfour Beatty said the fault list was compiled without latest records of what had been completed, and very little of the outstanding work needed to be done by the time the company received it.

A Railtrack spokeswoman said the 81 locations with speed restrictions were considered to be "similar" to Hatfield for a number of reasons. They included the condition of the track, the track's life, train speeds and whether the track was on a bend.

The speed limits will cause delays to services. GNER, the company which operates the east coast main line, said an hour was being added to journey times.

While Railtrack has made much of its plans to invest more in infrastructure, its network management statement reveals a plan drastically to reduce the rail it intended to replace. While this year the company intends to renew 515km of track and next year 527, the figure is then reduced by 41 per cent to 310 kilometres from 2006 onwards.

A spokesman for Railtrack argued that its programme was winding down because it was reducing a backlog of work.

As the company's chief executive, Gerald Corbett, yesterday returned to his desk after his offer to resign was rejected, he faced mounting criticism of his company's stewardship of the railways. He and fellow executives were meeting with all the train-operating companies and contractors to review the initial findings of the causes of Hatfield.

Senior government sources declared their dissatisfaction with the decision of Railtrack board to back its chief executive. They argued that he would not have offered to resign if he had been content with his record. They also attacked industry executives for being intent on protecting their backs rather than finding out the truth.

Meanwhile, it is understood that the Railtrack board is seriously considering employing its own maintenance staff following serious concerns over its relationship with contractors.

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