The Rail Strike: Railtrack is key player in approach to sell-off

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IT HAS taken a strike to bring Railtrack to national prominence. Until the signalling staff dispute blew up, the only evidence of its existence were a few signs hung up at the 13 big stations which it operates, writes Christian Wolmar.

In fact, Railtrack took over responsibility from British Rail for the railway signalling and track on 1 April this year and is the key player in the new structure of the railway which is being prepared for privatisation. Railtrack charges the train operators - 25 companies which still belong to BR but which are due to be sold off as franchises at the end of next year - for use of the track. Most stations are run by the train operators, although 13 which are earmarked for privatisation are in the hands of Railtrack.

Chaired by the controversial former chairman of BP, Bob Horton, Railtrack has a budget of pounds 1.8bn. The 4,600 signalling staff are the largest group employed by Railtrack under Mr Horton's 'lean and mean' policy for Railtrack. Most track maintenance work is contracted out.

Mr Horton has been pushing hard for the early privatisation of Railtrack, although the Government's plan was originally to sell Railtrack only after the 25 franchises had been tendered out. There is opposition from both BR and the Franchising Director to an early sale, but the Treasury, which is likely to benefit to the tune of at least pounds 3bn if Railtrack were sold, is keen.

Railtrack's negotiations with its signalling staff are being carried out by a team led by Christopher Leah, director of Railtrack North West Zone, one of 10 area zones. Like most of Railtrack's managers, he is a career railwayman who first joined BR in 1966.

But Railtrack is very much the creature of government and its freedom is constrained by both the Department of Transport and the Treasury. Indeed Mr Horton's says his enthusiasm for privatisation is motivated by the desire to free Railtrack from Treasury spending rules and allow him to obtain the investment funds needed to improve the railway. This dispute will not help his cause and he was willing to agree to a relatively high offer until ministers prevented him from doing so.