By Phil Longman
BBC News Online
It's 18 months to the day since Network Rail took over the trains. Are things finally looking up for passengers?
The crash which sparked the crisis
In 2002, the UK's beleaguered train system became the responsibility of Network Rail, which was charged with taking care of the tracks, the signalling, the stations - pretty much everything bar the trains themselves.
Now the first glimmering of optimism is emerging from the company that it is turning the corner. Passengers may just face a brighter future.
It's been a long road to improvement since the Hatfield crash and its aftermath, which brought the network to a virtual stand and which prompted the hand-over.
On 17 October 2000, a GNER train travelling at 117mph derailed at Hatfield. Four people died and many more were injured. The cause was quickly established - a broken rail.
Railtrack, which then ran the tracks, ordered a massive programme of inspections across the country to prevent any similar accident. It imposed hundreds of speed restrictions, and miles of track were replaced. Delays were horrendous and the train companies claimed compensation.
With its losses mounting, Railtrack was eventually replaced by Network Rail on 3 October 2002. The new chairman boldly proclaimed: "We can produce real improvements for rail users within 18 months."
Last October Network Rail announced that all maintenance work would be brought back in-house. This had previously - and controversially - been subcontracted to private engineering companies, and standards had been criticised. It was a step the company described as the biggest shake-up of the rail industry since privatisation.
Network Rail says there have been major improvements. Performance for the last quarter of 2003 was the best for four years, with delays caused by track or signalling down by more than a quarter - the lowest level for this quarter since before the Hatfield crash.
The Rail Passengers Council, which represents everyone who uses the trains, agrees that progress has been made. It says Network Rail "seems to be getting a grip" and is making a concerted effort to tackle the perennial problem of leaves on the line, and has boosted the reliability of track and signals.
This month the UK's rail regulator approved a £22bn investment to improve the rail network. The package - which runs from April 2004 to March 2009 - is less than Network Rail had been asking for.
To make up for the funding shortfall, the company will be allowed to borrow more than £3bn over the next two years - when the cost of repairs will be high - and pay it back when the rail system has improved. The train operating companies will have their access charges to the rail network frozen during that period, so the hard pressed passengers shouldn't face a big rise in fares.
The rail union, the RMT, is clear that the fundamental problem remains the same as when the last Conservative government privatised the system. That's the separation of track and trains - "the wheels from the steel".
It welcomes Network Rail's decision to bring maintenance back in-house, but says it should also do the same for the building of new track. The union's aim, says a spokesman, is the recreation of an integrated railway system run "by and for the people".
Fewer delays, happier passengers?
Another critic of the present system is the environmental group, Transport 2000. It says the rail industry is riddled with "uncontrollable costs" and needs fundamental change.
The Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, is currently talking to all sides of the industry as part of a fundamental review of the way our railways are run. He told MPs in January: "No government department can or should attempt to operate the railways".
But he did say the network had been left fragmented, excessively complex and dysfunctional due to privatisation. So industry insiders do expect some major reforms.
Meanwhile, Network Rail's chairman, Ian McAllister, is cautiously optimistic: "On the day Network Rail took over 18 months ago, I said 'it will take three to five years to deliver the type of rail infrastructure that passengers have a right to expect in the 21st Century'. I stand by that forecast and whilst we are making progress, there is a long long way to go."