New watchdog to target failing train companies

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The Independent Online
JOHN PRESCOTT, the Deputy Prime Minister, will this week announce the creation of a "super-watchdog" for trains which will have the power to force rail companies to keep branch lines open, remove graffiti and make stations safer for women. It will also be able to withhold the privatised rail operators' subsidies as a punishment for poor performance.

The Secretary of State for Transport is to announce the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority at a summit of directors of train companies and transport experts on Thursday.

The new body will encompass Opraf - the body which has the power to fine train firms if they are consistently late or unreliable - and the old British Railways Board.

It will be headed by a railway "Tsar", also to be announced this week. Sir Alastair Morton, the former chief executive of Eurotunnel, is expected to get the pounds 120,000-a-year job. The new Strategic Rail Authority will be established in April "in shadow form", which means it can operate but will have to wait for the approval of Parliament.

Ministers have prepared a Bill establishing the Authority which they want to push through the House of Commons this year.

The new body will hand out government subsidies to the privatised rail companies. It will work alongside the independent rail regulator which is responsible for looking at the the level of charges by Railtrack.

A new rail regulator will also be announced soon. The front runners are City lawyer Tom Winsor, an expert on rail regulation and Chris Bolt, who was deputy regulator under John Swift, who recently left the job.

Thursday's rail summit will also be attended by Glenda Jackson, the Transport Minister responsible for introducing a public-private partnership on London Underground. She will be involved in question-and-answer sessions with passenger representatives, local authorities and train operators.

Mr Prescott will use the rail summit to deliver a sharp rebuke to train operating companies for failing the public. The Deputy Prime Minister has privately admitted that voters will partly measure his effectiveness on how successful he is on sorting out the rail network. At last year's Labour conference, when Virgin stranded several ministers on a train, he made a stinging attack on shoddy services.