SRA chairman pours scorn on Souter plan

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The Independent Online

The new chairman of the Government's Strategic Rail Authority yesterday poured cold water on the idea of train operating companies being allowed to take over the track on which their services run.

In his first working day in the job, Richard Bowker, the 35-year-old former Virgin Trains chairman, signalled there would be a much closer working relationship between the SRA and the Rail Regulator, Tom Winsor, to improve the regulation and financing of the industry.

Over the weekend, Brian Souter's Stagecoach unveiled proposals for its South West Trains franchise, the country's biggest commuter service, to take over day-to-day control of the lines from Waterloo. But Mr Bowker immediately cast doubt on the prospects for such vertical integration, questioning the upheaval it would involve and suggesting it could take six or seven years to implement.

"Whatever the strength of the argument, this is a prospect to consider with great care," he told a transport conference in London. "Some radical organisational changes I would not rule out, indeed some simplification initiatives I would definitely rule in, but as the primary focus of attention, no thank you."

Mr Bowker did, however, indicate there were too many individual train operating companies ­ heralding a fresh move by the SRA to consolidate the existing 25 franchises into a smaller number. His predecessor at the SRA, Sir Alastair Morton, also favoured fewer train operators.

The new SRA chairman also managed to incense rail passengers' groups by defending the high "turn-up-and-go" fares charged by his former employer. When asked about Virgin Trains' fare policy, under which a peak return from London to Manchester costs £153, Mr Bowker said: "You have to pay a premium rate for a premium service". Virgin points out that pre-booked fares cost as little as £20.

Mr Bowker's comments came as Railtrack's big institutional shareholders began the first formal moves in the process of suing Stephen Byers for compensation over his decision to pull the rug from under the network operator.

Lawyers acting for the Railtrack Shareholders' Action Group have written to the Secretary of State for Transport requesting documents that will help establish whether investors can bring a case against Mr Byers for abuse of public office.

The documents, which include minutes of meetings with Railtrack and its advisers and Mr Byers's own advisers, could also help in determining whether shareholders have a case under the 1998 Human Rights Act on the grounds that putting Railtrack into administration deprived them of "the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions".