Bowker plan dismissed by ministers

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The Independent Online

Plans drawn up by Britain's rail chief for the future of the industry have been comprehensively dismissed by ministers.

Plans drawn up by Britain's rail chief for the future of the industry have been comprehensively dismissed by ministers.

Senior directors at the biggest train operators have been told that a blueprint prepared by Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, involving the creation of a British Rail mark II, have been binned and there was no chance they would be resurrected.

Mr Bowker had been lobbying ministers to take a fresh look at his proposals, but a senior Department for Transport official told train company bosses they had been fully and finally rejected. Mark Lambeth, the director of rail strategy and resources, is understood to have revealed the decision in phone calls to directors on Thursday evening before they met Mr Bowker at an emergency meeting yesterday.

Train company bosses expected the SRA chairman to make a last-ditch attempt to persuade them of the merits of his plan for "Bowker Rail" at yesterday's summit.

The intervention of senior officials once more calls into question the future of Mr Bowker, who was appointed by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Byers, to get a grip on the ramshackle industry. Since then the network has soaked up billions of pounds but showed no substantial improvement in punctuality and reliability.

It is understood the Department for Transport, which intends to publish a White Paper on the future of the industry next month, favours an enlarged role for the infrastructure company Network Rail. Under the proposals, Network Rail would take on the authority's responsibility for monitoring train companies. The "strategic" role of the SRA would be assumed by the department, and a low-key government agency would take over the authority's function of awarding train franchises. Responsibility for safety would be removed from the Health and Safety Executive and possibly given to the rail regulator.

One of the problems that remains to be solved is the ownership and control of Network Rail. The organisation is controlled by "members" drawn from rail companies and other industry "stakeholders". A report by the National Audit Office, an independent Parliamentary watchdog, argued that because Network Rail was a "not-for-profit" organisation in the private sector with "members" rather than shareholders, there was no clear incentive to deliver value for money to taxpayers, the main source of finance.

Jeremy Colman, the assistant auditor general, said a better means of "incentivising" an organisation delivering a public service was through the kind of public-private partnership (PPP) in control of National Air Traffic Services. But a decision to convert a new enlarged Network Rail into some kind of PPP would mean more upheaval.