Winsor warns ministers over rail shake-up

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The Independent Online

Ministers are in danger of producing a White Paper on the rail industry which will be "all fur coat and no knickers" and make the performance of the network considerably worse, according to the outgoing Rail Regulator Tom Winsor.

Mr Winsor, who is leaving his post at the end of the week, said the Government, "through profound ignorance and misunderstanding" of the existing system, could be seduced into a "superficially appealing" plan which would dismantle the contractual system he has built up between train operators and the owner of the tracks, Rail Network.

It is known that ministers have been considering simpler structures, including one in which private sector rail companies would sign contracts with the Government. Present arrangements are substantially based on a structure in which the businesses have contractual obligations to each other.

The White Paper, due for publication next month, is aimed at simplifying the highly complex structure of the industry, which few people - including senior rail officials - fully understand.

In a valedictory interview, Mr Winsor said: "Ministers could well come out with a starburst of radical thinking presented as the Government getting the industry by the scruff of the neck and giving it a good shake. I've got a strong feeling it won't be anything like that.

"It is born mainly out of a need for ministers to appear to be doing something radical, but it would be based on profound ignorance and misunderstanding. I am fearful that the Government's White Paper will do damage to the significantly improved matrix we have built up."

His guiding concept for policing relationships within the industry has been "liquidated damages" in which there were predetermined penalties for specific infringements. He argued that this had significantly improved the flawed system in which competing companies argued for months over their financial responsibilities in the aftermath of the Hatfield disaster, when a broken rail cost the lives of four passengers and caused the worst disruption to rail services in peace time.

The Rail Regulator warned that any new system of contracts would take two years to impose on the industry, take even longer "to bed in" and inevitably result in a deterioration in performance.

Mr Winsor, a barrister, will announce today that he is to join a private law firm. He is expected to be involved in advising rail companies.