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Last Updated: Friday, 14 October 2005, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Fateful weekend in Railtrack history
Tom Symonds
By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Railtrack shareholders have lost their battle for compensation from the government. Tom Symonds examines how the case came to court.

Maintenance workers on track
Railtrack oversaw rail maintenance

On the night of Friday 8 October 2001 the lights were burning brightly in two London offices. At Railtrack's headquarters, dubbed "the black tower" by the rail industry, executives were digesting some devastating news.

It had been delivered to them by the occupants of the other office. Across town at the Department of Transport, ministers had decided to shut Railtrack down.

Within 48 hours, a court had put the owner of Britain's railway network into administration. Railtrack was later to be replaced by the company we have now - Network Rail, which has no shareholders.

The demise of Railtrack was a dramatic and pivotal moment in the short history of the privatised railways.

Earlier in the year, the company had hit the financial buffers because of the spiralling cost of repairs following the Hatfield disaster and the huge bill for modernising the London to Glasgow main line.

Secret letters

Rail regulator Tom Winsor had criticised Railtrack for holding out a begging bowl for more public money and, in the summer of 2001, officials at the Department of Transport began planning what to do next.

No-one disputes the fact that the plan... was highly secret

Four years later, all has been revealed by the High Court case against the government brought by nearly 50,000 shareholders. In an open court, the usually private workings of the civil service have been laid bare.

In secret letters, e-mails and memos, officials discussed whether the collapse of Railtrack could be triggered by the government withdrawing its financial support. They argued over what the alternatives would be and whether private shareholders, sometimes referred to as "grannies", should be compensated.

The shareholders said this amounted to a malicious plot to destroy the company and reverse privatisation by replacing Railtrack with a not-for-profit alternative.

The government insisted it was simply considering all the options and working up a contingency plan for the possibility it might decide to withdraw support for Railtrack.

No-one disputes the fact that the plan, codenamed Project Ariel, was highly secret. Shareholders were kept in the dark - and many were still buying shares the night before the company collapsed.

Personal statement

During the court case the transport secretary at the time, Stephen Byers, was closely cross-examined and admitted that in the months following the Railtrack administration he was not entirely truthful when questioned by a committee of MPs.

Stephen Byers
Stephen Byers may be censured by MPs for his untruth

He was asked if he began discussing the demise of Railtrack before a crucial meeting in July 2001, at which the company's chairman warned Mr Byers of the financial difficulties.

His answer at the time was "no". But during the court case he admitted "it is true to say there was work going on so yes that was untrue".

Mr Byers plans to make a personal statement to the House of Commons and may be censured by MPs for his untruth.

The Railtrack shareholders count this as a big victory, an admission that has made the case worth bringing.

They also say that they now have a much clearer understanding of how and why in a single weekend in 2001, their company met its fate.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Hear shareholders' reactions to the judgement



SEE ALSO
Defeat for Railtrack shareholders
14 Oct 05 |  Business
Ex-regulator enters Railtrack row
01 Aug 05 |  Business
Railtrack's woes blamed on bosses
20 Jul 05 |  Business
Byers admits untruth on Railtrack
14 Jul 05 |  UK Politics
Ex-minister denies Railtrack plan
12 Jul 05 |  Business
Byers wished to 'kill' Railtrack
04 Jul 05 |  Business

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