Two-week rail recovery plan agreed

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Railtrack tonight warned months of misery lay ahead for commuters despite the Government and industry leaders pledging to implement a two-week recovery plan.

Railtrack tonight warned months of misery lay ahead for commuters despite the Government and industry leaders pledging to implement a two-week recovery plan.

The plan sets a timetable for inspecting and repairing rails, and Railtrack predicts the worst will be over by next Wednesday.

But chief executive Gerald Corbett said it was "inevitable" there would be further delays over the coming months.

After the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the public demanded safety issues be addressed in the wake of last week's Hatfield disaster.

He added: "We must be sure that the industry has a robust national track recovery plan to which Railtrack, the train operators, are committed and which can be used to give passengers the best possible information about future disruption.

"The industry expects that it will take until next Wednesday to inspect all the sites where there is known to be gauge corner cracking. This is will be the biggest ever inspection programme.

"We agreed to meet next Thursday to review progress with establishing the national track recovery plan.

"I would like to pay tribute to front line railway staff who have worked extraordinarily hard to deal with some horrendous problems and continue to do so.

"Passengers' patience has been stretched to the limits this week. Some inconvenience is inevitable for such a major task.

"But the industry must work together to have a well-managed plan for finding faults and repairing them which gives advanced notice to passengers, minimised disruption and maximised safety."

More than 1,800 rails with hairline cracks have been found by engineers. It has led to speed restrictions at 206 places, with another 150 due for inspection.

Railtrack also vowed to give at least 24 hours' notice before closing any more lines. It also apologised for the chaos caused in Scotland when it suddenly shut the busy West Coast main line yesterday for three days. It has now been reopened ahead of schedule.

Mr Corbett said: "The worst case scenario is that 300 sites will have temporary speed restrictions.

"Our teams on the ground are tired and tempers get frayed but we have got to bash on and get it sorted. This is the biggest programme of track inspection ever seen."

Railtrack also blamed leaves on the line for a derailment today - only nine days after the Hatfield disaster which killed four people and provoked widespread safety restrictions, causing major delays across the country.

This morning's incident occurred near Virginia Water in Surrey as the 8.21 South West Trains service from Weybridge in Surrey to nearby Staines derailed at 8.43, narrowly missing a commuter train travelling from Reading to Waterloo.

Four carriages, carrying a hundred shaken passengers, overshot the platform and were derailed by the points. The commuters emerged unhurt, with two treated for shock.

Clapham Junction, one of the busiest spots on the railway, is earmarked for mass disruption this weekend as engineers prepare to replace rails.

Mr Corbett said: "The network will be getting back to stability over the weekend and by the end of Tuesday we will know where we are with speed restrictions."

Nearly all of the 25 passenger train companies reported delays after the closure, with some passengers needing an extra 75 minutes to complete their journeys.

The Royal Mail said millions of letters were being delayed because of the disruption.

In a statement critical of Railtrack's 11th hour decision on the West Coast line, Royal Mail said it was using additional air road services to get post delivered.