Three freight trains, including one carrying wine, were looted in north London after they were delayed by emergency repairs by Railtrack - an embarrassing revelation on the day that its share price was set at between 350p and 390p for the forthcoming flotation, valuing the company at less than pounds 2bn.
As 1.9 million people registered for the shares, Opposition parties and anti-rail privatisation groups labelled the sale "a rip off" and "an act of vandalism".
The latest Great Train Robbery in February happened as the track work disrupted service over six days. More than 100 bottles of Australian and South African wine were found on the track near Primrose Hill, north London, and another container with "dangerous goods" was also broken into.
Several freight operators have transferred goods from rail to road as a result of the disruption. Railtrack has already been criticised by the Health and Safety Executive for the deterioration in the condition of the track on lines out of Euston which have resulted in a 10mph speed limit being imposed causing severe delays.
The chaotic series of events at Primrose Hill, just north of Euston, is described in a letter leaked to Channel 4's Dispatches programme last night from Freightliner, one of BR's two remaining railfreight companies, in which the company's managing director, James Mackay, warns that Railtrack's "very unsatisfactory" performance puts in danger "revenue amounting to several millions of pounds".
The delays also threatened the prestigious Ford contract for taking cars through the Channel tunnel operated by the other BR company, Railfreight Distribution.
Mr Mackay said that Cosco, its sixth largest customer, "withdrew all business from us until we can provide assurance that deliveries can be made to schedule".
A Freightliner official would not give details of the value of the goods stolen or what the dangerous goods comprised "for security reasons". However, he added: "The thieves struck lucky because normally the containers would be carrying boring stuff."
A closure of the North London line for work to enable Eurostar trains heading north of London to use the track led to freight traffic being diverted on to the Primrose Hill line.
However, the state of this short stretch of track was so bad that the track kept failing and there was concern about a derailment.
The track condition worsened because of the extra trains and had to be relaid. A memo on the condition of the track said much of the foundation was "mud" and that components such as clips were "breaking daily".
The maintenance work caused a total of 88 hours delay to Freightliner's trains - one was delayed for 18 hours.
The completion of the work was put back by Railtrack on several days after Freightliner had been promised that it would be finished. As a consequence, some of Freightliner's trains were left on vulnerable parts of the railway system in north London which resulted in the thefts.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that small investors scrambled to register for the Railtrack flotation with 500,000 putting their names down to receive application forms and special discounts over the past week.
Rush for Railtrack, page 18
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