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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Passengers condemn rail chaos
The site of the Hatfield train crash
Four people died in the Hatfield train crash
Customer patience is at "near breaking point" over continued rail disruptions following the Hatfield crash, according to a report.

The highly critical report from the Rail Passengers Council (RPC) describes conditions as "probably the worst peacetime disruption the railway has ever seen".

Many promises have simply been dashed and passenger patience is now near breaking point

Stewart Francis, RPC

The RPC received 14,000 complaints last year - and warned that things could get even worse this winter.

Official punctuality figures to be released next week are also expected to show some long-distance train service are getting worse.

RPC chairman Stewart Francis told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the last year had been "disastrous".

He said passengers were particularly angry about not being informed when things go wrong.

And he said train companies should be preparing to warn customers that a "winter of discontent" could be ahead.

"Railtrack's own figures are that delays attributed to Railtrack will be up 36% on last year," he said.

"We're bumping along with poor performance in the summer - what happens when it rains, we get flooding, we get leaves on the line?"

The most complaints 2000-2001
Virgin West Coast 1,042
Virgin Cross Country 780
First Great Western 759
GNER 354
Midland Mainline 201

George Muir, director-general of the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), admitted the last year had been poor.

But he told Today the industry was now "looking forward" and "doing the right things".

He said most of the problems stemmed from poor infrastructure of the rail network.

He called for the government to "grasp the nettle" of funding Railtrack - responsible for this infrastructure - properly.

Virgin West Coast, which topped the number of complaints received, admitted it had had a "dreadful year".

A spokeswoman said most problems, such as severe flooding, were beyond their control.

But she said the company had also had problems with its rolling stock - but that a new fleet was being introduced and that next year should be much improved.

Funding calls

Mr Francis agreed that the root of the problems lay in successive governments failing to invest in the railways.

But he said Railtrack then got its sums "severely wrong" on how much it would cost to maintain the railways.

"And then you have train operating companies whose performance can be called into question as well."

This led to a situation, he said, in which most rail passengers "can't tell much difference in the past six years since privatisation, and indeed are probably paying more for their tickets."

Railtrack situation
700 temporary speed restrictions on the network now
550 this time last year
An average of 25-30,000 minutes of delays daily

The RPC, which is the official Strategic Rail Authority-funded passengers' group, is calling for the uncertainty about Railtrack's funding and structure to be resolved as soon as possible.

It also says a reassessment of the Ten-Year Transport Plan should result in increased funding for the railways.

Next week a SRA report is due to reveal still-declining punctuality in three key long-distance services - First Great Western, Virgin Cross Country, and GNER.

Up to one in three trains are still late on the Great Western line between London and Cardiff.

This line escaped the worst of the post-Hatfield problems, but the Great North Eastern Railway between London and Edinburgh was crippled by it.

The BBC's Rachel Ellison
The BBC's Kevin Bouquet
at Manchester Piccadilly Station
On the Today programme:
Stewart Francis, chairman of the Rail Passenger Council, and George Muir, director general of the Assoc. of Train Operators
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