Railtrack warned on West Coast upgrade

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The Independent Online

Railtrack's long, slow rehabilitation from the Paddington disaster came to an abrupt end yesterday.

Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, cast doubt on the company's ability to complete the pounds 2bn upgrade of the West Coast Main Line on time and warned that the company faced legal action if it continued refusing to supply him with detailed plans for the project.

Mr Winsor said Railtrack would have to "run very, very hard" to meet the May 2002 deadline for phase 1 when the track should be ready to take Virgin's 125mph tilting trains.

The assertions of the redoubtable Mr Winsor were reinforced by the shadow Strategic Rail Authority. Mike Grant, the authority's chief executive, also demanded reassurance that the infrastructure company would be able to honour its promises. Indeed he went further and urged the company to "firm up" plans for the second phase aimed at providing a track which will be capable of handling 140mph trains by May 2005.

It is the first time that either of the two regulatory organisations have expressed such deep concern about deadlines for the completion of the West Coast line between London and Glasgow - Europe's biggest rail project.

Mr Grant also took the opportunity to endorse the Regulator's tough line over the kind of information supplied by Railtrack about the project.

Mr Winsor issued a second official warning to Railtrack after the company failed to agree a plan of action to supply the details. While he expected the company eventually to provide the data, he said it could face an injunction if it failed to do so.

The interests of Virgin Trains are protected by a contract with Railtrack, but 15 other train operators which use the West Coast track could take civil action if the company defied any enforcement notice, he said.

Mr Winsor pointed out that he had published a first draft enforcement notice last November requiring "robust plans" from the company to meet its commitment to provide extra capacity on the line as well as for options for further upgrades.

Officials at the Rail Regulator's office indicated that since then they had been involved in negotiations with Railtrack's managers and believed they would agree a plan to present the information required. The officials declared their surprise that Railtrack had failed to do so. They suggested that the company might simply be "trying to play it long" to improve its negotiating position.

Mr Winsor accepted that Railtrack had recently put more effort into the West Coast Main Line, but he added: "The key question is whether they are trying hard enough."

The Regulator insisted that despite claims from Railtrack, it was not simply a procedural matter. "The company wants me to accept undertakings. That I will not do as Railtrack has broken several undertakings given to the Regulator in the past. The modernisation project is already well behind schedule and estimated costs have doubled." He expressed his "extreme disappointment" that the company had failed to co-operate. "Like me the travelling public simply will not understand or accept Railtrack's behaviour," he said.

Robin Gisby, Railtrack's Director of Network Development, insisted that the company would meet the 2002 deadline. He said management was producing all the information required by the regulator and had made much of it available. Responding to the Regulator's concern over the long-term capacity of the route, Mr Gisby said that his company was being asked to make theoretical assumptions about what train services would be run in six years' time. "Is freight demand really going to double by then, when it has been largely flat recently on the West Coast?" The Regulator has asked Railtrack to allow for 42 extra services a day on the route.

Mr Grant said he also harboured concerns about the long-term capacity of the route and Railtrack's ability to meet the 2002 deadline. "As we stated in November, the West Coast Main Line is a vital trunk route and as time progresses, the need becomes more urgent to address our concerns on the long-term capacity of the route.

"It is important that we are given the confidence that the first stage of the operation will be delivered on time, despite the initial delays in implementing the upgrade, and concerns that Railtrack firm up the plans for the critical second stage quickly."

He pointed out that since November, the company had also announced a massive increase in costs. They needed to be identified in detail so the authority could be satisfied about who should bear them. "We await the detailed response to the Regulator's action, which we fully support."

To make matters worse for Railtrack yesterday there were indications that its industrially powerful signal workers might be about to flex their muscles.

Employees rejected an above-inflation pay offer of 5 per cent by 1,922 votes to 414. No-one was talking yesterday of a reprise of the prolonged and highly damaging dispute some years ago, but the result came as a surprise to both management and the RMT rail union.

Railtrack was keen to prove itself responsive in one regard. The company bowed yesterday to severe safety criticisms made after the Paddington disaster last October by appointing its first Board Director for Safety and Environment. Chris Leah, formerly Operations Director, is taking on the post.

His appointment follows a recommendation in the Government-commissioned Rollands Report that Railtrack's safety and standards directorate, which acts for the whole industry and is represented on the board by Rod Muttram, should be hived off as a separate subsidiary, to be called Rail Safety.

Gerard Corbett, Railtrack's chief executive, said the Paddington crash was a "watershed", adding: "We have to make it the catalyst for a step change in safety management and culture."

The bulk of Mr Leah's responsibilities as operations director will be passed to Paul Prescott, Director of Planning and Strategy. These include the drive to improve track quality and reduce the number of broken rails.

Elsewhere however the company was enduring a fresh round of controversy. And this time both the Rail Regulator and the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, the two most powerful organisations in the industry, were joining forces to attack it.