RAILTRACK warned this week that planned maintenance and renewal work could be at risk unless the Rail Regulator gives it more time to meet its passenger train punctuality targets.
In a letter sent to acting Regulator Chris Bolt on Thursday, the company is understood to have asked for an extra three years to cut delays to passenger trains by 7.5% - a target which it got only half way to meeting last year.
Railtrack insists that if Bolt continues to demand that the deficit must be made up this year, the work that entails will disrupt work already planned and being carried out.
Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett was forced to admit in March that delays to passenger trains caused by faulty track, power supplies or signalling were only reduced by 4% last year. He blamed the failure on disruption caused by the 1998 Easter floods and a series of other 'unforeseen' circumstances.
Bolt is understood to be frustrated by Railtrack's lack of progress. He is pushing for an additional 7.5% reduction in delays for this year as well as making up last year's deficit.
Railtrack's letter followed work by its performance team which concluded that punctuality improvements could not be met this year because of the high volume of engineering work already planned. The company is negotiating for more time, arguing that delays to freight trains caused by rail infrastructure faults fell by more than 10% last year.
A Railtrack spokeswoman claimed the company was still committed to improving punctuality, but explained: 'If the Regulator holds us to the current targets it will definitely have an impact on our planned work.'
She added: 'Our programme of track possessions is already booked for next year and we will have to renegotiate with the train operating companies if we have to meet this target.'
Contractors rejected Railtrack's claims as 'ducking the issue'. A director of one rail contractor said: 'I think it's a weak argument. You can still run the network on time if you programme additional maintenance and renewals for gaps in the timetable.'
The plea for more time also drew criticism from rail campaign group Save Our Railways, which claimed the Regulator would lose credibility unless the target was enforced. The group has already written to the Regulator to ask him to act over Railtrack's failure to halt the deterioration of the network.
'We think it's time Railtrack was made to perform, given the amount of money they take out of the industry as profit,' said campaign director for Save Our Railways Jonathan Bray.
A spokesman for the Office of the Rail Regulator said it was 'looking carefully' at Railtrack's proposals, but stressed: 'We do not want last year's 7.5% target to be written off. Three years sounds an awfully long time.'
He added that Railtrack could be held in breach of its network management licence and fined under the Railways Act if it fails to comply with the Regulator's wishes.