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Railtrack's role as a network operator needs to be more clearly defined under the new Labour government.

THE COLLAPSE last week in Railtrack's share price sparked more speculation over to the infrastructure owner's future.

Prime minister Tony Blair again ruled out renationalisation, but the new government needs to be seen to be doing something to improve the rail network.

Renationalisation of the network would provide the government with an extra political headache because another fatal crash would put the politicians closer to the firing line.

Even though Railtrack is now worth less than it was when it was privatised, it would not come cheap to taxpayers. They would also have to cover maintenance costs and take on Railtrack's debt.

In effect the government already has a significant amount of control over Railtrack because it holds the purse strings for its operating subsidies.

There have also been suggestions that the train operating companies could take responsibility for the maintenance and renewal of lines on which they run their trains.

There would be massive amounts of money involved in these options and there are questions whether the operators, even the larger ones like Virgin and National Express, could raise the millions required to undertake a line upgrade.

Buying the lines off Railtrack would also be very costly and Railtrack may not be willing to sell.

These options would create another contractual layer and break up the network further. There would be significant safety implications about how interfaces between lines would be managed, leading to an increased potential for accidents.

On top of this, all the major lines have a number of operators - passenger and freight - using the tracks. It would be difficult to ensure all operators got a fair level of accessibility.

A more likely solution is a move toward more closely aligning the operators with Railtrack, with the work still being carried out using Railtrack money.

If agreements could be reached between Railtrack and the operators, the two parties could drop the compensation payments paid to the operators for delays caused by track work. But this will require trust from all parties, something that has not been achieved in the past.

This could be done on the basis that Railtrack could reduce costs, and the operators would get better maintained line.

Most of the pieces in the jigsaw are now in place. The SRA is taking a leading role in major project development. The rail regulator's network licence modifications are giving more control over Railtrack.

New transport secretary Stephen Byers now needs to pull all these pieces together.

More major changes will only further delay progress of the railways. This would not be accepted, as the government has to be seen to make significant progress on rail as in other areas of transport policy within this parliament.

For more on Railtrack and its problems go to www. nceplus. co. uk

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