Railtrack ready to pay £10m over failure to reduce delays

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The Independent Online

Railtrack is preparing to pay a fine of at least £10m for failing to reduce train delays, it emerged yesterday.

Railtrack is preparing to pay a fine of at least £10m for failing to reduce train delays, it emerged yesterday.

Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, revealed that the company has already set aside the cash in anticipation of its failure to meet the target by the April 2000 deadline.

Mr Winsor had instructed the company to cut delays by 12.7 per cent by the spring , which seemed to have a "galvanising effect". However, it is already clear that management will fail to meet the objective. The regulator has estimated that the financial penalty could be as much as £40m.

Mr Winsor also warned the company that it could face fresh fines if it failed to meet its obligations under changes to its operating licence revealed in yesterday's Independent.

The new conditions include a "binding code of practice" over its dealings with customers and strengthens its public accountability. As part of the new regime, Railtrack will be expected to set up a central database of all its assets - such as stations, signals and tracks.

A report by the consultants Booz Allen and Hamilton, which Mr Winsor said was "highly critical" of Railtrack, pointed to the company's ignorance of the condition of the rail infrastructure.

Mr Winsor told the company that its stewardship of railway assets was not of purely private commercial significance. "Its assets are of national importance and the railway industry and those who use it, pay for it, and depend on it have a right to expect far better," he said. Railtrack has not lived up to those expectations and will not be allowed to get away with a "Manana attitude" to fulfilling its obligations.

Railtrack said it "totally accepted" the need to improve both asset management and responsiveness to customers, and added that it has already adopted several measures to address these areas.

Gerald Corbett, Railtrack's chief executive, admitted to the company's shortcomings saying that in the Great Western region there were "10,000 different structures and 10,000 different lists to go with them."

But, while it has "no objection in principle" to the licence modifications, Railtrack took issue with what it saw as "a partial and unbalanced perspective of our record as steward of the network".

Mr Winsor said the company has altered its policy to extend the working life of equipment, and warned that "Railtrack may well be focusing too much on the short term and storing up serious problems for the future."

He also complained that the infrastructure business frequently prolonged negotiations when other companies needed to build structures over or under railway lines. He said Railtrack was using the lines as a "ransom strip".

The regulator said he expected the business to respond positively to his initiatives. "I'm not knocking them down, I'm knocking them into shape," he said. Nevertheless, he warned, if he is not satisfied with the company's response, he will not shrink from imposing financial penalties.