Track condition has deteriorated in private hands

Rail maintenance
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The Independent Online

Britain's railway tracks are in a considerably worse state than they were when the system was state-owned, according to a series of independent and official studies.

Britain's railway tracks are in a considerably worse state than they were when the system was state-owned, according to a series of independent and official studies.

The number of broken rails, thought to be the cause of the Hatfield crash, has risen from 750 in 1995 to 937 last year.

The rail regulator, Tom Winsor, ordered an independent investigation on 4 August, to be carried out by the US consultants TTCI, arguing that Railtrack's record in dealing with such problems was prima-facie evidence of a breach in its licence.

Mr Winsor said Railtrack had not ensured "an appreciable reduction" in broken rails and had failed to meet its own target. He told Gerald Corbett, the company's chief executive, in a letter that he was "not satisfied that Railtrack is taking all appropriate steps to secure or facilitate compliance with its network licence".

He said the company could be in breach of condition seven of its licence, which required it to maintain the network "in accordance with best practice and in a timely and efficient manner, so as to satisfy the reasonable requirements of funders and operators".

Earlier, in June, Mr Winsor had written to Mr Corbett expressing concern that the number of broken rails increased sharply in 1998-99. Although the total fell in 1999-2000, the figure was still much higher than the 1997-98 total. The two main causes of broken rails are either cracks caused through constant stress or a breakdown in the material that welds separate lines together.

Peter Rayner, adviser to the House of Commons transport committee, believes that unlike other Western European countries such as France and Germany, where rail breakages are less frequent, Railtrack had failed to invest enough in the network's infrastructure. Mr Rayner believes the answer is the complete replacement of tracks, not just increased maintenance.

Railtrack also fell foul of the Railway Inspectorate over a series of broken rails in the Severn Tunnel, prompting the inspectorate to run an investigation that showed the existing frequency of rail replacement had been altered.

Previously, all rails in the tunnel had been renewed every six years or so, to avoid rail breaking caused by "corrosion-assisted fatigue". But the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), of which the inspectorate is a part, said that in recent years the "re-railing" period had been extended without a full and proper assessment of the potential risks.

Since the regulator's initial intervention last year the Railway Inspectorate has held regular meetings with Railtrack to try to solve the problem. The initiatives include laying new rails at locations with a high incidence of problems and increased testing of rails.

The HSE argues that where improved testing results in the discovery of more defects, Railtrack should agree extra funding without diverting resources from existing maintenance.

Earlier this year, the HSE said the inspectorate was concerned that "even with these initiatives, the overall numbers of potential defects is likely to remain high. This, together with increasing rail traffic, means that the risk of derailment from a broken rail is likely to remain significant for some time to come."