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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 14:58 GMT
Rail upgrades feel financial pinch
Railway workers on a track
A cash crisis threatens the government's 10-year plan

Rail bosses have warned that passengers face higher fares, cuts in services and delays to major projects because of a cash crisis.

The Strategic Rail Authority has admitted that soaring costs are threatening to undermine the government's 10-year plan for modernising Britain's railways.

The great thing about where we are today is that we've got real and this industry is out of denial about the issues

Richard Bowker
SRA chairman
Key schemes to reduce overcrowding and delays have all been delayed or downgraded.

These include the modernisation of the east coast main line between London and Scotland, expansion of the Thameslink route through the capital, and improvements to commuter lines in south-east England.

The SRA's strategic plan for 2003 confirms that dozens of local schemes have been blocked by the effective suspension of funds designed to improve stations and performance, and increase freight traffic.

The long-awaited Thameslink 2000 project through London has also suffered a major setback.

SRA chairman Richard Bowker said he was "extremely narked and hugely disappointed" at Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's decision on Wednesday to tell Network Rail to produce revised proposals to expand stations and tracks in central London, after criticisms at a planning inquiry.

Mr Bowker said tens of thousands of passengers would suffer continued overcrowding.

The decision could delay the scheme by another two years.

Target 'dropped'

Completion of the west coast route modernisation, and strengthening of power supplies in order to replace old slam-door trains in southern England, are the plan's only major commitments.

Hundreds of brand new trains for Connex, South Central and South West commuter routes are facing months in sidings, because of delays by Network Rail and its predecessor Railtrack in beefing up the electrical power system.

The government's target of a 50% increase in passengers by 2010 has been dropped and the SRA plan now forecasts a 25% to 35% increase.

It warns that rising costs "are eroding the value for money of government support for rail and the justification for expansion".

Meeting the SRA's spending limits will mean "selected thinning" of rail services, raising fares especially at peak times, and downgrading or delaying large projects.

Derailed train in Surrey
Rail improvements are on hold
The SRA says the industry faces a "critical" 18 months to convince the government to pump more money into the industry.

On the east coast main line, hopes of 140mph tilting trains have been scrapped and modernisation of the route will now take 10 years instead of five.

Extra platforms, longer trains and new track to bypass bottlenecks could increase timetable frequencies by 2010.

Plans for a major upgrade of the Great Western main line have been shelved.

The SRA is now planning a merger of First Great Western and Thames Trains to make better use of existing track capacity and improve journey reliability.

'Calm down'

SRA chairman Richard Bowker told BBC News Online that much of the government's 10-year plan for rail had proved too impractical to deliver.

"The strategic process to manage it was not there," he said.

"It became a free-for-all, a mad rush with everyone dreaming up wish lists. Now we've got to calm everything down.

"The past five years have seen unconstrained optimism with no-one getting on top of the art of the possible.

"People put together ideas and aspirations that were never sensible or deliverable."

Despite current spending constraints, the SRA will press ahead with consultation on a new, 6bn high-speed line between London and the North.

It says 200mph trains running on a route built away from urban areas but serving existing city centre stations could have a strong business case.

Journey times between London and Scotland could be cut to as little as two hours.

No precise route has yet been drawn up and it is thought work would not start for at least a decade.

The BBC's Simon Montague
"Some commuters still pack onto 40-year-old slam-door trains"
Anthony Smith, Rail Passengers Council
"Costs for some reason are ballooning"
Shadow Transport Secretary Tim Collins
"The government have got to get a grip on cost control"

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