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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 May 2003, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Q&A: Network Rail in the red
For many, the news that Network Rail has lost 290m will be translated into "UK rail industry in financial crisis".

In fact, the truth is more complicated than that: financial losses are not a major worry, but nor is Britain's rail network seriously on the mend just yet. BBC News Online explains.

Is Britain's rail network in financial crisis?

No more than usual.

Network Rail has, it is true, slumped from a 295m profit last year to an equivalent-sized loss in 2003.

It has also seen its debts increase by almost 50%, to more than 9bn.

But from most people's point of view, this is cheering news.

Much of the increasing burden of expenses on Network Rail has come from greater spending on its track network; modernisation investment rose by one-third, to 1.2bn.

Amid widespread concern over the quality of Britain's rails - the cause of frequent delay and even, perhaps, of accidents - it would be rather shameful if Network Rail were not spending money fast.

These latest financial results are presented with an air of cautious optimism: rail network safety, the chief concern of many since a series of crashes in the past couple of years, is already starting to improve.

So are things looking up?

Perhaps - but very, very slowly.

Network Rail's optimism is hedged about with endless caveats.

Some indicators of safety - broken rails, for example, or signals passed at danger - are certainly improving.

But the firm is uncomfortably aware that investing in safety upgrades has a disruptive effect on the train schedule - vast swathes of the network were shut down over Easter, for example, for work on the vital East Coast mainline.

Train delays attributed to infrastructure, which account for just over half of all delays on the system, were up 9% in 2003 to 14.7 million minutes (that's 29 years in real money).

Network Rail is careful to point out that its future performance depends on a number of unguessable variables, notably a decision from regulators on the future of the West Coast line.

And its strategic aims are almost laughably modest: it is currently hoping to get back to 1999 standards of rail service at some point within the next 10 years.

What is Network Rail? Is it the same thing as Railtrack?

Ah, the intricacies of a privatised rail industry.

Network Rail is a sort of toothless reincarnation of Railtrack, the stock-market-listed network operator which was declared insolvent by the government in October 2001.

A year later, Network Rail took responsibility for Railtrack's 21,000 miles of track, 40,000 bridges and tunnels, 2,500 railway stations and 9,000 level crossings - a network valued at 180bn - for a peppercorn payment of 500m.

It is toothless by comparison with its controversial predecessor, because it is not empowered to make profits for shareholders, and is even more beholden to the regulatory dictates of the Strategic Rail Authority and the Office of the Rail Regulator.

It is not state-owned as such, but like a co-operative is controlled by its 116 members, most of which are public-sector bodies.

The government does, however, stand guarantor for its debt.

Is any of this going to make my trains start running on time?

Network Rail may have a better chance than Railtrack, which seemed deliberately structured to foster greedy, short-sighted network management.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the October 2001 demolition of Railtrack, the new company has every possible incentive to strive for network improvements, rather than rapid self-enrichment.

But the fundamental weakness of the system is in the relationship between the network owner and the train operators, which can blame Network Rail for causing their delays - and claim unearned compensation in consequence.

"A safe railway must continue to be the first priority," Network Rail writes.

For a punctual railway, meanwhile, we will have to keep waiting.

The BBC's Tom Symonds
"Network Rail is heavily in debt"

Rail repair bill doubles
31 Mar 03 |  Business
Network Rail takes track back
27 Mar 03 |  Business
Rail improvements 'under threat'
16 Feb 03 |  Business

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