Merseyside to unite track and trains

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The Independent Online

A group of five local authorities in Merseyside have drawn up radical proposals to take over a large part of Network Rail, the track and infrastructure operator.

If approved, the plan would reunite the operation of trains and track under one company for the first time since rail privatisation.

The proposals have been devised by Merseytravel, the public sector transport authority controlled by the local councils, and Merseyrail Electrics, the train franchise operated by Holland's Ned Railways and Serco, which runs London's Docklands Light Railway.

The plan was delivered to transport minister Kim Howells, Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) chairman Richard Bowker and rail regulator Tom Winsor earlier this month.

Neil Scales, director general of Merseytravel, said: "We are trying to do something a bit radical in Merseyside. If we shorten the command chain then we can do a more effective job than Network Rail. "

Merseytravel is aggrieved by Network Rail's proposals to reduce the level of maintenance and renewals, to meet stringent cost savings imposed by the rail regulator.

In its plan, Merseytravel says the downgrade "would lead to a progressively more unreliable railway, with prolonged service shutdowns and disruptions becoming an increasing feature of the network". It points out that the railway network is especially important to the region, as 40 per cent of households in Merseyside do not have access to a private car. Under the plan, Network Rail's assets would be handed over to Merseytravel. It would then set up a special infrastructure company to hold the assets. The company's maintenance and renewal work would be funded by track access charges paid by Merseyrail.

The railway system is unique in Merseyside. Earlier this year Merseytravel took "supervisory responsibility" for Merseyrail, over the SRA. This allowed Merseytravel to let Merseyrail on a longer-than- average 25-year franchise.