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Rail's action man

New Rail Regulator Tom Winsor has promised a tougher approach to holding Railtrack to account over its investment plans. Matthew Jones spoke to him about his early priorities.

Two weeks after taking up his post as Rail Regulator, Scottish lawyer Tom Winsor is already making his mark. On his first day he called on Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett to confirm the number of new train paths it planned to build on the West Coast Main Line. This week he wrote a scathing letter outlining his concerns over the seeming lack of a coherent freight strategy.

Winsor says that although his relationship with Corbett is only just beginning, both are in no doubt where the other stands.

'Somebody will have to move, and it won't be me. My policy is tougher and more effective regulation and I don't give up,' he says.

He claims to have unshakeable faith in the revival of the railways and the man who appointed him, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. He believes both are here to stay and that the key aim now is to provide new capacity to allow the network to grow.

'If the capacity isn't there, all the train operating companies who are ordering new rolling stock will be wasting their time because the network is already overloaded,' he explains.

Winsor acknowledges that the existing regulatory system has shortcomings which have done little to encourage investment in new lines and up-to- date signalling systems. Track access charges paid to Railtrack by the train operating companies are largely fixed, with little variation to reflect additional use of the network.

He has promised to overhaul this part of the regulatory framework to provide more incentive for capacity enhancement, but says in return Railtrack must significantly improve its service.

'There is nothing wrong with making healthy profits, but profits have to be earned. Railtrack is doing very well in terms of financial performance but rather less well in terms of operational performance,' he says.

First off, Railtrack will have to claw back last year's deficit on its target for reducing delays due to failure of the track infrastructure. It had set itself a target of reducing delays by 7.5% year on year, but managed only 2% by the end of March (NCE 10 June).

Railtrack will also have to demonstrate by the end of this month that it can deliver 42 additional train paths on the West Coast Main Line by mid-2005. Train operators have complained that work has been slow to start and that Railtrack's plans lack credibility.

In addition, Railtrack's freight strategy is under scrutiny after Winsor expressed concerns over the absence of any costed options for freight routing and gauge enhancement in its Network Management Statement.

The company did an apparent U-turn on freight earlier in the year by moving away from upgrading the WCML for swap-body 'piggyback' wagons in favour of a cheaper option for smaller W10 container wagons.

Winsor says that on all these issues he will conclude 'very soon' as to whether Railtrack is failing to meet its Network Licence obligations and should be subjected to financial penalties.

'I have to decide what the most appropriate enforcement action is. I am not so much interested in punishing Railtrack as I am in getting the project done,' he says.

There is further good news for train operating companies and rail contractors and consultants, who claim Railtrack has pushed them around too much over the last three years. Winsor has pledged to help them insist that their contractual rights are honoured and to take action against Railtrack if it abuses its monopoly position.

'If there is any suggestion that anyone is being in any way pressured by a monopoly supplier, that is something I will treat very seriously,' he says.

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