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The BBC's Tom Symonds
"For managers it's been almost impossible to run a normal service"
 real 56k

Friday, 1 December, 2000, 19:26 GMT
Rail speed limits eased
Track replacement work
A huge programme of track re-railing is still underway
A third of speed restrictions imposed on the UK rail network after the Hatfield train crash are being eased.

Railtrack has announced that at a "significant number" of sites 20mph speed limits will be increased to 40mph.

Engineers also believe it is safe for limits to be raised to 60mph at about 140 sites which have a 40mph restriction.

Lord MacDonald
Lord MacDonald: Heads rail action group
Meanwhile, the special task force set up by the government to deal with the rail crisis - chaired by Transport minister Lord MacDonald, met for the first time for what were described as "extremely useful" talks.

Members of the Rail Recovery Action Group agreed that their main priority was to work together to restore normal services as quickly as possible and to keep the public informed of progress.

The group has members from all the major industry players and will work to restore normal rail services as quickly as possible by troubleshooting any outstanding problems.

Railtrack believes it will be able to raise the speed limits at around 200 out of 572 restricted sections of track over the next two weeks.

Services to Derby, Sheffield, York and Newcastle should be improved by the changes, but the west coast will remain badly affected by restrictions.

Track repairs
850 speed restrictions imposed initially
572 still in place
40mph limits at 140 sites to be raised to 60mph
About 200 of the 20mph restrictions to be raised to 40mph
3,700 sites checked for gauge corner cracking
117 miles of tracks re-railed out of 426 miles
Railtrack's new chief executive Steven Marshall said: "The speed restrictions were appropriate and necessary following the accident at Hatfield.

"We have been keeping these restrictions under review and will continue to do so.

"It is important we can all be confident the railway is safe."

Railtrack hopes the move will mean timetables become more reliable.

But the firm's technical director Richard Middleton warned: "Unfortunately, this doesn't mean the railway will get back to normal overnight."

"For many travellers services will not be back to normal until next year."

Speed limits were put in place at 850 sites following the Hatfield crash on 17 October which killed four people and injured more than 30 others.

Steven Marshall
Steven Marshall: "Safety comes first"
A significant number of cracked rails have been found at some sites and 20mph limits will remain in those areas.

Railtrack has been criticised by the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority for over-reacting to the discovery of damaged rails following Hatfield.

But the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) remains concerned about the raising of restrictions.

It has agreed to the move - but only with an undertaking from Railtrack that it continues investigations into gauge corner cracking.

'Safety first'

Dr Bob Smallwood, deputy chief inspector of railways for HSE, said: "I think they are doing the correct thing, given the information they provided to us.

"We wouldn't have let the speed restrictions be relaxed in this way if we didn't believe Railtrack was maintaining safety on the network," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

There have been concerns that speed limits and emergency timetables were confusing drivers and making them more likely to go through stop lights.

Mr Marshall said: "I know it is a dreadful time for many travellers. Relaxing the speed limits will help things run more smoothly."

He insisted Railtrack was only easing speed restrictions on the basis of good engineering information.

Mr Marshall said "safe running of the railway is our first priority".

Next week the train companies are expected to release their emergency timetables for the Christmas period, expected to provide for 73% of normal services.

No date has been given for when the railways will be totally back to normal but Mr Marshall said he expected things to be very much improved by the end of January.

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