14 December 2000

Rail investment threatened by switch to air

By Paul Marston, Transport Correspondent

The sharp fall in the number of rail passengers since the Hatfield crash is threatening long-term improvements to the railways, the Government's chief transport adviser said yesterday.

He issued his warning as John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, confirmed that services might not return to normal until Easter and a Commons committee called for "radical changes" in the Railtrack management. David Begg, head of the Commission for Integrated Transport, said he believed that the recent shift of inter-city travellers from rail to air could become permanent unless normal services were restored quickly.

Uncertainty about demand for rail travel would affect the ability of Railtrack and the train companies to raise the £34 billion the Government expects from them as part of its 10-year transport plan. The money has been earmarked for extensive upgrades to the main intercity lines and to provide more frequent and reliable commuter services. Commission figures showed that, eight weeks after Hatfield, overall use of the railways was down by 14 per cent and on intercity routes by 30 per cent.

The number of domestic air passengers had risen by 15 per cent, with routes such as London-Newcastle and London-Manchester up by more than 40 per cent. Mr Begg said that he had taken to flying from his home in Edinburgh to London instead of going by rail. "Normally the train takes about four hours. At the moment it is more like seven. The flights are pretty good and there are lots of cheap seats. Train companies such as Virgin and GNER have a real challenge on their hands to win this business back."

Mr Prescott said during Commons questions that Railtrack aimed to achieve substantial reductions in journey times by the end of next month. But the track problem was so extensive that it could be mid-April before all services were back to normal.

In a report on Hatfield and the emergency track maintenance that has followed, the transport select committee said that Railtrack was guilty of "systematic, often-repeated failings". These could not be resolved by the recent resignation of Gerald Corbett as chief executive and the "cosmetic reshuffle" of its board. The MPs called for a fundamental shake-up of senior managers, with more power being given to experienced railwaymen and engineers. They also demanded an overhaul of methods of supervising maintenance contractors.

The all-party group said the continuing emergency track programme suggested that Railtrack knew that its management of maintenance contractors had been ineffective before the derailment, which claimed four lives. It cited Mr Corbett's view that the failure of Balfour Beatty, the contractors for Hatfield, to impose a speed limit after finding a track defect nine months before the crash was "not acceptable".

The MPs said that despite a reshuffle three weeks ago, Railtrack's board still contained only one executive director qualified in engineering and only one other with significant rail experience. Gwyneth Dunwoody, the committee's Labour chairman, suggested that the Government might ultimately have to consider renationalising Railtrack if the company proved incapable of improving its performance.

Railtrack insisted that experienced railwaymen made up "over half" of its top management group.