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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 17:01 GMT 18:01 UK
How do you relaunch the railways?
Hatfield crash site
Hatfield turned a spotlight on the fragmented industry
Over the years, there have been some tough relaunches of troublesome products - Perrier, eggs, British beef... But how about the UK's railways?

On Thursday Network Rail is finally being launched from the ashes of the failed company, Railtrack.

But if the relaunch of the railways is to be a success, there are key tasks to get underway:

1. Look after the passengers

The main difference between Railtrack and its successor is the absence of shareholders.

Network Rail logo
Low-key logo: Almost as if the company has been around for years
Network Rail will be a company limited by guarantee, meaning that should it make a profit, the cash will be put back into the railways rather than to shareholders.

This could enable Network Rail to have a long-term vision. But the public perception of how the company is doing will also be important, if only because of the political pressure.

2. Make a safe, reliable network

Avoiding crashes while improving punctuality is key to Network Rail's success - for these are the public's two big concerns.

Signals passed at danger
470 in year ended March 2002, compared with 1,000+ a decade ago
Chris Cheek, editor of Rail Industry Monitor, says this is a difficult balance.

"Broadly speaking, the politicians and the public want a 100% safe railway - there isn't such a thing. But there's a lot you can do to minimise that through training and systems."

What Network Rail will have to do is set tough safety and training standards for its contractors; and get punctuality back to pre-Hatfield levels.

Engineers examine the tracks and points at Potters Bar
Potters Bar further rattled the rail industry
Although punctuality has improved since the immediate aftermath of that fatal derailment, still one in five services is delayed. Pre-Hatfield, almost 90% ran on time.

Currently, maintenance workers are trying to clear the backlog of mundane tasks, such as trimming trackside trees. (As those who board trains in autumn know, "leaves on the line" can cause commuter chaos.)

3. Modernise

Slam-door stock, stained seats, tumble-down stations, aging rails - much of the network is in need of a spring clean, if not a facelift.

If Network Rail wants to lure people back to train travel, it will have to be worth our while. But modernisation is a slow and costly business.

Tilting train tests the London-Scotland route
New trains need better lines to run at top speeds
If timetabled repairs and upgrades are carried out on time and on budget, says Mr Cheek, the UK should have a more modern and efficient rail network by 2006.

"But we won't end up with a network where the trains can run faster than they do now, with extra capacity."

This is because major projects - such as upgrading the West Coast Mainline - are working to a different schedule.

Network Rail is not the only player in the West Coast project - train operators, the Strategic Rail Authority and construction companies are also involved.

This multiplicity of interests has thrown up many unanswered questions, says Mr Cheek, and delays seem almost inevitable.

4. Sort out the money

Although the new company will not have shareholders, it will still have to raise huge sums from private investors.

Alistair Darling
Alistair Darling took over from Stephen Byers in May
How much? It seems setting up Network Rail is going be a more expensive business for the taxpayer than the old Railtrack.

Buying off Railtrack shareholders - a crucial step if the government is to retain the trust of private investors - could cost up to 500m.

After that, Network Rail says it will need more taxpayers' money - perhaps 10bn - on top of the 15bn already coming its way in the next few years.

Then there is the money to be raised from the markets, which will be guaranteed by the taxpayer. And is anyone willing to bet that Network Rail will not come back cap in hand for even more?

5. Get a united network

In launching Network Rail, Mr Byers said it would lead to "a railway system that is united and not fragmented; a railway industry with a shared strategic vision".

But there is little evidence to support this view.

Trains before privatisation
BR days: Just as complex but less obvious
The splintering of the rail industry, into dozens of lone companies, is often cited as the main fault with British Rail's privatisation.

Network Rail will have no power to reverse this fragmentation. Train companies will still run their lines, maintenance will still be out-sourced, there will still be an independent rail regulator, and a Strategic Rail Authority.

So what's changed? "Nothing - it'll just be a different company in Railtrack's place," says Mr Cheek.

He does, however, see a greater willingness to co-operate since the Hatfield crash and "get the structures in place to improve the rail network".

And that, at the end of the day, is what we all want.


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