Outlook: Train standstill

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The Independent Online
YOU MIGHT not have noticed, but yesterday was officially Transport Delivery Day. Amid the customary jamboree that accompanies these announcements, ministers were dispatched to the four corners of the country to spread the good news.

In London John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced a new rail passenger champion to kick the failing train operators into line.

John Reid, the Transport minister, was in Leeds to declare West Yorkshire a Centre for Transport Excellence, while the Roads minister, Lord Whitty, hailed a bus in Cirencester to announce an extra pounds 20m for rural buses and pounds 25m for country roads.

Two years into the first Labour government for two decades, Mr Prescott knows the travelling public is desperate to see tangible improvements - especially on the trains. Unfortunately, there is so far precious little evidence of it.

The appointment of Mike Grant, the Eurotunnel hard man who made 200 banks agree to a pounds 8.6bn rescue package, as chief executive of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is the final piece of Mr Prescott's "spring clean" of the existing regulatory setup. He is the third member of the triumvirate of Sir Alastair Morton as SRA chairman and Tom Winsor as Rail Regulator.

The difficulty is that all three appear entirely unsure about what powers they actually have. The SRA will not exist until legislative time can be found to create it - probably not until late next year. Meanwhile Sir Alastair chairs the largely defunct British Rail and Mr Grant acts as Franchising Director under a system drawn up by the Tories.

Mr Prescott points to BR's power to run trains - but Sir Alastair used February's Rail Summit to say that the one thing he won't do is run trains. The Deputy Prime Minister says both Mr Grant and Mr Winsor have considerable powers under existing legislation that their predecessors failed to use. But Mr Winsor says his powers are lacking when it comes to enforcement.

And just when we thought ideology was dead, Sir Alastair condemns the "bad old days when people said `the Government must do something'," while Mr Prescott says a privately owned railway "works better through the intervention of public bodies". Not much agreement there, by the look of things.

Mr Prescott says the SRA is "in the sidings and ready to go". More in the sidings than ready to go, it might be said. The travelling public - and voters - are standing on the platform, and increasingly impatient, there is still no sign of the train.