Railtrack is asking its employees to snoop on train crews to make sure it is not being unfairly blamed for delays.
The infrastructure company believes that some drivers and conductors - possibly with the surreptitious encouragement of train operating companies - are taking the organisation's name in vain.
Railtrack managers believe that train crews routinely use excuses like "signal failure" - which would be down to Railtrack - when in some cases the delay was caused by defective rolling stock, ostensibly the responsibility of train operating companies.
In a newsletter covering the southern area, Railtrack suggests that employees using trains monitor what passengers are told, keep "correct records" of what happened and report the information as soon as possible.
In its advice to employees, Railtrack says: "When you experience a delay on your train, we would like to know. This is especially so with incidents which start as minor delays, stopping unusually between stations, or delays in platforms. Please let us know what you yourself see delaying a train, or reasons the conductors give for the delays."
Railtrack insists that it will always put its hand up when culpable, but has devised a series of euphemisms for the difficulties it encounters (it now prefers "adhesion problems" to the more risible "leaves on the line").
The RMT rail union is angry over Railtrack's plea to its employees and it argues that the company itself is capable of misleading passengers.
Lawrie Harries, an RMT official, pointed out that the privatised railway system is operated on the basis of contracts which include compensation and penalty clauses for delays. "Delays caused by Railtrack cost it money. It is not unknown for passengers to be told that delays are caused by bad weather when the truth is the condition of the track or signalling."
He added that most delays are caused by track or signalling problems which are Railtrack's responsibility. Train operating companies can also attempt to pass off rolling stock failures on maintenance staff or rolling stock leasing companies.
Jimmy Knapp, general secretary of the union, said Railtrack's initiative was another example of a changing railway culture. "Privatisation has meant that we have moved from running the railways by team effort to disjointed individual effort where the overall objective is sometimes forgotten," he said.
"If Railtrack and the train operating companies put the same effort and ingenuity into providing an efficient, integrated service as they do in passing the buck, passengers would get the high-quality service they are entitled to expect."
Railtrack said there was nothing "mischievous or sinister" about its request to employees. "It is simply a way of keeping in touch with what's happening on the ground. People are anxious that they get the right information. If it's our fault we will admit it."
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