Railtrack to get £5bn for safety improvements

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The Independent Online

The Rail Regulator is to grant Railtrack an extra £5bn to modernise the network and improve safety standards in the wake of this week's train crash at Hatfield which killed four people.

The Rail Regulator is to grant Railtrack an extra £5bn to modernise the network and improve safety standards in the wake of this week's train crash at Hatfield which killed four people.

Tom Winsor will announce the extra cash on Monday when he gives the go-ahead for an increase of almost 50 per cent in Railtrack's revenues over the next five years to around £15bn. The extra money will enable the company to embark on an unparalleled upgrade of the rail network. But it will be tied to tough performance targets which will penalise it heavily if standards of punctuality and reliability slip.

The regulator's move follows a warning from the Health and Safety Executive yesterday that it is prepared to close down large sections of the network in the interest of passenger safety following Tuesday's crash. HSE inspectors underlined the severity of the problem facing Railtrack by disclosing that the type of hairline crack thought to have caused the accident has been found in rails less than 12 months old.

The Hatfield crash has again thrown the spotlight on the way the rail industry was broken up at the time of privatisation and prompted Railtrack's chief executive Gerald Corbett to call for a radical rethink of its structure. The Tories admitted yesterday that "mistakes" had been made in the way the railways were sold off in the mid-Nineties. Bernard Jenkin, the party's Transport spokesman, conceded that British Rail had been broken up into too many different companies.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, weighed into the argument, saying: "I have always said that the fragmented, adversarial, blame-culture structure of the railways, which we inherited, encouraged different parts of the country to pull in different directions, against the interest of passengers." He said he had asked Sir Alastair Morton, the chairman of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, to meet Railtrack as soon as possible to discuss any proposals for change.

Railtrack wants the power to take possession of an entire line for several days, so contractors can renew long sections of track in one go. This could cause massive disruption to passenger services.

But the HSE has served notice it is prepared to take unilateral action to close sections of track. Presenting its interim report into the derailment, the HSE said it would monitor 81 sites with similar risks to Hatfield and consider shutting them if Railtrack did not replace worn-out track urgently.

HSE inspectors said the condition of the Hatfield track was the "worst they have ever come across". The HSE also stressed it would consider criminal prosecutions if it found breaches of regulations or negligence. Charges could be brought against Railtrack or Balfour Beatty, the company contracted to maintain the track.

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