Regions to take over sections of railway network

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The Independent Online

Large chunks of Britain's national rail system are expected to come under the control of regional transport chiefs as part of a radical shake up of the network.

The Government believes key parts of the system will operate more efficiently if they are fully integrated with other forms of public transport under the direction of local leaders.

Ministers are increasingly convinced Britain should copy the French system in which national organisations are responsible for high speed trunk routes and regional authorities run local commuter networks.

Merseytravel, the publicly-funded transport authority for the area, is likely to be among the first regional organisation to take over the responsibilities of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), with full powers to grant licenses to private sector train operators. A spokesman said Merseytravel had been planning to take over the SRA's functions in its area for two years. He pointed out the present Arriva Trains Merseyside franchise was due to end in just over a year and it was hoped a decision on which operator should be awarded the licence would rest with Merseytravel.

Officials point out that the franchise covers a self-contained network extending outside the Mersey area, to Chester, Ellesmere Port and Ormskirk.

Merseytravel argues its proposal could form a model for other regions, although in most other areas there is more than one franchise holder.

Meanwhile, Virgin Trains's new timetable published today showed passengers must wait an extra year before 125mph tilting trains are running on the West Coast line. Delays to the upgrade have meant the trains will not run until May 2003.