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MPs call for `robust' transport safety watchdog

A SAFETY watchdog should be set up, armed with "robust" powers to punish errant companies as part of its role as regulator of the transport industry,MPs recommended yesterday.

The all-party Commons transport sub-committee's report urged the Government, "for the third time", to remove responsibility for rail safety regulation from Railtrack, which has faced criticism since last month's Paddington disaster. The new watchdog would cover air, sea, road and rail and should be armed with powers to bring recalcitrant organisations into line.

It would take over the safety role of Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, and even the British Transport Police. The recommendation, if implemented, would amount to an overhaul of the transport safety regime, currently on an industry-by-industry basis.

Ministers have already announced that they are "minded" to take the responsibility for rail safety away from Railtrack, but have yet to pronounce on the creation of one organisation.

Introducing the report, Gwyneth Dunwoody, chair of the committee, said that passengers' confidence in rail travel had to be revived in the wake of the Paddington crash. She said: "The public will only have faith in safety when they are convinced that it is the number one consideration." The new regulator would need "sufficient clout" to make sure its recommendations were carried out, she added.

Mrs Dunwoody also rounded on a Conservative member of the committee who argued that the proposed creation of a Strategic Rail Authority was "quasi re-nationalisation" of the network. That suggestion was "arrant rubbish" said Mrs Dunwoody.

The rail industry had been torn apart by privatisation and needed considerable investment, she said. And the establishment of the authority, which was charged with taking an overview of the network, was the first step towards bringing the industry together, she said. "Companies have not been talking to each other. We need them to communicate in a way that serves the interest of the passenger," she said.

James Gray, a Tory member of the committee had suggested that the authority would lead to "over-regulation". He said that the City had already registered concern over interference with commercial interests by marking Railtrack shares down. The company's ability to invest, he argued, depended on a large extent to its stock market valuation.

The report, endorsed unanimously by members of the committee, called for a commitment to extend Eurostar services to the regions and said that the authority should enjoy a first option to buy any land that Railtrack wished to sell, ensuring that resources which might be critical to the expansion of the network were kept under control.

The report recommended that the authority be given powers to draw up the timetable for services and take over management of national rail inquiries. It should also ensure that customer satisfaction with services should be published on a regular basis.

The Association of Train Operating Companies expressed support for the document.