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DAVID FROST: For the fifth consecutive weekend rail passengers have faced lengthy delays as Railtrack works to replace a 19 mile stretch of track before tomorrow's rush hour. The greatest disruption has been in the north-east. This week the safety report commissioned by Railtrack is suspected to recommend lifting some of the speed restrictions that were imposed across the network following the Hatfield crash. Meanwhile the Deputy Chief Inspector of Railways, Dr Bob Smallwood has dismissed claims that speed restrictions are making the network more dangerous. Joining me now is the Chief Executive of Virgin Trains, Chris Green. Chris good morning to you.
CHRIS GREEN: Good morning.
DAVID FROST: First, first basic question, what do you feel about the speed restrictions, do they, we've got all these figures now coming out this week allegedly showing that they are safer but, but you don't, you don't think so?
CHRIS GREEN: I think Railtrack were right to be cautious at the beginning, they were dealing with an accident that had killed four people, they were dealing with a new type of rail break and I think they were right to be very cautious with the 20mph speed restrictions. Now they've had more time to get some more science into it and to get some investigations going they now realise they can now raise a lot of them to 40mph which will make a huge improvement to the rail industry and passengers' travel times.
DAVID FROST: And at the moment like other operators your number of passengers is down about 25 per cent?
CHRIS GREEN: Yes, in our worst week it went down to 50 per cent, now it's up to 25 per cent and climbing so people are coming back but it was certainly a shock to the system.
DAVID FROST: And in a week like this say, where you, where you've lost 25 per cent of the passengers for this week or whatever, how much, how big a loss does it mean you were running at this week?
CHRIS GREEN: It means about one in eight coaches were empty, it means businessmen had left to travel on aeroplanes and we still having to give compensation to those people who were travelling, so it's the, certainly the worst situation I can remember in my railway career.
DAVID FROST: So this week you lost £5 million? CHRIS GREEN: It's, the Railtrack have given us something like £15 million so far in compensation and they gave that without argument and that has just about covered us for the first month.
DAVID FROST: Covered you for the first month¿
CHRIS GREEN: Yes.
DAVID FROST: So, so at the moment it's making the waiting, waiting for improvements and so on. And you said somewhere that you thought it was a year, it was going to be a year before things were back to normal?
CHRIS GREEN: Yes.
DAVID FROST: And will it be a year also before you get the passengers back, all of them?
CHRIS GREEN: We just need to define what we mean, I think by January which is not that far away the railway will be back to relative normal, we should have most of our tracks running, we should have our full train services running. So it's only a few more weeks to wait for that. My worry is a lot of the passengers may not come back even when the train service is back and I think we're going to have to go in for some very big marketing campaigns, particularly on the long Intercity routes where we have air competition.
DAVID FROST: And do you still want to try and take the tracks on the east side of the country or is it less attractive an option now?
CHRIS GREEN: I think Richard Branson and Brian Souter who are our two big shareholders are absolutely determined to stay with the rail business, they've made huge investments and very recently announced yet another investment in the teeth of all these problems, so they're taking a very long-term view, they are competing toughly for the east coast and we would like to build a new mainline on the east coast to speed up journeys
DAVID FROST: But it is chaotic isn't it, I mean the last rail, the rail privatisation people say, I mean it was a chaotic system that was created here wasn't it? Almost inoperable?
CHRIS GREEN: No I think we probably fragmented the industry into too many bits, it's much harder to run a railway in those bits and I think any way we can find to bring them together in a sensible way without reorganising, the last thing any railway man wants is another three years of reorganisation. We can just find some way of creating a simpler calmer industry within the existing framework it really would be helpful.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of the changes going on at the moment and you mentioning January for an almost normal, with or without the passengers, what about Christmas, I mean can people rely on the trains to get to and from their destinations at Christmas or would they be better off walking?
CHRIS GREEN: No they would definitely be better off on a train, we shall be publishing the detailed Christmas timetables, we are already taking reservations and the staff are going to move heaven and earth to get people on trains and move them efficiently over the Christmas holiday.
DAVID FROST: I see so that's, you can be reassuring on that particular point?
CHRIS GREEN: Yes, yes.
DAVID FROST: And how does, how does in fact our rail system, do you think, compare with others round the world?
CHRIS GREEN: What¿
DAVID FROST: Which is, which is the perfect system that we should aspire to be like?
CHRIS GREEN: The thing we've done differently in Britain before answering your question, I think, is we have not built new railways, so if you go to France or Germany which is what I think you wanted me to say you would find brand new railways and obviously it's much easier to run a brand new railway. In Britain we've crammed 25 per cent more people and traffic onto the same railway in the last four years and I think we really are going to have to think about a new railway up the east coast in the way that Richard Branson has been suggesting.
DAVID FROST: Do you, do you in fact have too many, too many safety regulators do you think buzzing around the railway system?
CHRIS GREEN: Part of my master plan of simplification will be to have one safety regulator and I think most of the industry likes the air industry where you have an independent CAA managing the air industry very effectively, it would make life simpler.
DAVID FROST: I see so that would be, that would be an improvement and what about the pressure at the moment on the roads, what is the pressure you're putting on the roads at the moment, or people are putting on the roads, when 50 per cent are not travelling by rail or 25 per cent this week not travelling¿that must be, well we've seen some examples, a dangerous pressure on the roads, more people could die on the roads, in that sense, than in a tragic rail accident?
CHRIS GREEN: Sadly I think you're right and it looks as though the road usage has gone up about 25 per cent at the busiest time of the year and probably the most dangerous time of the year just when it's getting dark and before Christmas. So the sooner we can get people back on trains the better, the re-railing programme is a third finished already which is why I'm further confident by January we shall be offering you a working railway again.
DAVID FROST: By January a working railway, yes, and, and that's, that's a very interesting cross-section there on the whole thing, the, the, the government, the government, is there anything else you need from the government, will there be subsidies forever in, on Railtrack?
CHRIS GREEN: Yeah I think the, the technical problems are ours to solve so the railway industry has got to solve its engineering problems but we may in the short-term be tidyying over by government in some, some companies if the problems continue and I think if the government wants to see big new railways across the country it's also got to join in though private capital can be part of it but I think we're looking for a public-private partnership and more infrastructure for more growth on the railways.
DAVID FROST: What about the, two personnel have been mentioned here on this couch this morning, that you may have a sight of Chairman Steve Norris of Railtrack and you may have Peter Mandelson in charge of Transport, everybody wants to get in on the act?
CHRIS GREEN: It's going to be an exciting year for transport next year, clearly.
DAVID FROST: Yes it clearly is, and, but do you think Steve Norris will work well in a job like this?
CHRIS GREEN: Steve Norris will be a very popular appointment within the rail industry, he understands transport, he understands politics and he's a strong leader so he would certainly be popular within transport.
DAVID FROST: Chris thank you very much indeed, thank you very much indeed. Well there you are, all the, all the appointments about to be made there being discussed. END
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