Chunnel `hard man' to be rail troubleshooter

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The Independent Online
SIR ALASTAIR Morton, the former "hard man" in charge of Eurotunnel, is expected to be appointed by John Prescott, Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to head a new strategic rail authority to enforce higher standards on Railtrack.

Sir Alastair, who also acted as a consultant to Peter Mandelson on the Millennium Dome project in Greenwich, south London, is being brought in to tackle the dismal record of Railtrack under its chairman Sir Robert Horton.

Mr Prescott has called a rail summit for 25 February to order Railtrack and the privatised rail companies to improve their services.

Sir Alastair, 61, established a reputation as a hard-hitting executive with a record for fighting for the interests of the small shareholders when he was co-chairman of the company that built the Channel Tunnel.

In Whitehall, Sir Alastair is regarded as a "big animal in the jungle" who will be strong enough to take on Railtrack. He is privately compared to Chris Woodhead, the head of the schools inspectorate, for insisting on higher standards. "He will be able to put some stick about," one source said.

Sir Alastair will take up his duties in April, and the new strategic authority for the rail services - backed up by legislation - will give him wide-ranging powers to raise performance levels.

Mr Prescott, who has attacked the privatised railway services as a "national disgrace", believes raising standards is vital if he is to succeed in encouraging more motorists to leave their cars at home.

A damning report on Railtrack will provide plenty of ammunition for Mr Prescott at next Thursday's summit. It accuses Railtrack, which runs the track services used by the rail companies, of failing to invest effectively in modernisation and questions the direction of its planned pounds 17bn investment project over the next 10 years.

Accusing Railtrack of failing to deliver on its commitments, the report is expected to claim that it has failed to invest consistently in many areas, particularly its Great Western Zone, covering South Wales and the South-west.

Railtrack's profit forecast this year has risen to pounds 400m, with access fees of pounds 2bn a year from the rail companies.

The report, by the management consultancy Booz Allen and Hamilton, was commissioned by the rail regulator last year to review Railtrack's performance, and has sparkedspeculation in the City that Mr Prescott may order Railtrack to reduce its payments to shareholders to invest more in raising standards.

He could reduce the access charges Railtrack levies on the train operators with a regular six-monthly performance review.

Railtrack said yesterday that Sir Robert would respond to the criticism next week when the report is published, and he is expected to come out fighting. Railtrack claims the number of train delays for which it can be blamed has fallen by 40 per cent, but the management consultants' report says most of the improvement was achieved in the first year.