Railtrack should be renationalised by a new government, unless it reduces its charges for improving the rail network, James Sherwood, the president of Sea Containers which runs Britain's most prestigious rail line, said yesterday.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Sherwood was highly critical of the structure of privatisation and sceptical about the prospects for the investment which is vital for the modernisation of the network. He said that the newly privatised Railtrack must not attempt to impose high charges for investment or else it should be brought back into government ownership.
While Mr Sherwood has a vested interest in forcing Railtrack to reduce its charges, his comments are an embarrassment to the Government, which has just sold Railtrack, and to the Labour Party which ducked out of committing itself to renationalising it.
Sea Containers' subsidiary, the Great Northern Railway Company, runs the East Coast Main Line and Mr Sherwood is seeking to make a series of improvements including building three new Parkway stations - near Edinburgh, Doncaster and the M25 - and extending the platforms at King's Cross station in London. However, he said there were doubts about whether Railtrack would be able to fund any of these investments and what profits it would make if it does so. Mr Sherwood said that existing charges by Railtrack for use of the track and stations were far too high: "We could do the work that Railtrack does for half the price. We've looked at the costs of railways in other countries and we're convinced that we could do it much cheaper."
He said the high charges enabled the Government to take pounds 4bn out of the system to pay for tax cuts but that they resulted in a railway system that was too expensive for passengers and required too much subsidy from government.
Mr Sherwood added that all improvements to the network must be at a marginal rate, otherwise it would not be forthcoming: "We have to live with the core of high charges but the rate of return from new investment must be lower than on the existing assets."
Mr Sherwood questioned the future of the three rolling stock companies. He says that the charges they impose on train operators such as Great Northern are exorbitant. He is looking at the possibility of lengthening all the company's 40 leased trains and says: "The amount we have been asked for the extra coaches which are old ones lying idle - pounds 80,000 per year - is just ridiculous. We could get new ones built and pay about half that in annual leasing charges."
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