Outlook: Morton's progress

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The Independent Online
IS THE old bruiser on his way back? Reports that Sir Alastair Morton is a shoe-in for the job of chairing John Prescott's new Strategic Rail Authority will have struck fear into the hearts of many a train operating company.

The successful candidate is not due to be named until next month. But the thought of the ex-Eurotunnel chairman mud-wrestling with Brian Souter and Richard Branson is too exquisite to allow the job to go to anyone else.

On paper, the task of the SRA chairman will be to oversee the renewal or extension of the train operating companies' existing franchises to run passenger services. In practice, he will be there to extract the Government's pound of flesh.

The 25 franchises were let on terms which were too generous with subsidies that were too high and penalties that were too ineffectual. The result has been a deterioration in service combined, amazingly, with fare increases all round from the start of this month.

Sir Alastair will have the job of changing all that with a mixture of carrot and stick. As the contractors and bankers who had to deal with him over the Channel Tunnel will doubtless recall, Sir Alastair is rather more fond of the latter.

With the exception that the successful candidate should have top notch skills in diplomacy, Sir Alastair fits the Government's requirements in most respects. Had it not been for him there would be no tunnel, nor perhaps a rail link connecting it to the capital.

For all that it is hard to see how the SRA will be as strategic as Sir Alastair or Mr Prescott would like, since the all-important job of economic regulation will remain with the Rail Regulator.

Without the ability to fix Railtrack's access charges, the SRA chairman will have only a limited say in creating the new railway age Sir Alastair and Mr Prescott both envisage.

Doubtless there are good arguments for keeping the two functions separate. Allowing one regulator to hand out the subsidies to rail operators while also setting the access charges which those subsidies pay presents an obvious conflict of interest.

But the clincher is surely that it keeps Sir Alastair and Railtrack's Sir Bob Horton from each other's throats. Even for fans of corporate bloodsport, that would be too grisly a spectacle to bear.