Swift tries to get off on the right track

The new rail regulator may need a PR lesson, says Christian Wolmar
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As a barrister, John Swift, the rail regulator, is used to asking the questions rather than answering them and clearly found yesterday's experience of being grilled by a hostile and bemused bunch of journalists rather trying.

He is a formidable intellect, a key requirement for the job of trying to establish a regulatory framework for the railways because he is navigating in such uncharted waters. Previously, there were no rules and he is attempting to organise an industry that had a command structure where what BR said went. His consultation papers are a wealth of arcane detail, difficult for those without a similar legal mind to decipher, but they precisely address the conundrums that the Government's rail privatisation process have posed.

He has already flexed his muscles by issuing a paper on the key issue of track access charges, suggesting that the Government got it badly wrong in imposing very high charges and requiring a very high rate of return on Railtrack's assets. His decision onthese matters is due to be published early next week. As an expert in competition law who previously spent his time representing top 100 companies, he likes to talk about the "marketplace" and "stimulating innovation" but journalists at yesterday's press conference were keen to find out what would happen to passengers and trains, a communication gap which he seemed loath to bridge.

He got tetchy over the "Yeovil" issue, which several journalists reiterated and which is destined to become the "Schleswig- Holstein question" of rail privatisation. They wanted to know what would happen to a passenger wanting to travel from Yeovil to Birmingham since Yeovil was not one of the "core stations" listed in the regulator's consultation paper. Would they have to get off at Bristol to buy another ticket? Would they be able to get all the bargain fares? In response to several questions, Mr Swift put it in different ways, but essentially said that it would depend on what the local train operators thought was appropriate.

In his mid-fifties, Mr Swift, a QC, was headhunted for the position of rail regulator. He comes from a family that owned Thomas Swift & Co, a Liverpool stevedore company, but it was sold while he was at Oxford and after a spell as a law lecturer, he wentto the bar.

He is regular rail commuter with an annual season ticket from Didcot in Oxfordshire, a journey which takes him 40 minutes to Paddington.

He has said he was aware that the role of rail regulator would be a high-profile one. However, he did not seem to be enjoying the role yesterday and he has a steep learning curve ahead of him if he is to become trusted by passengers whose interests he issupposed to defend. He will have to learn to express himself in a way that the public can understand and show that he is, potentially at least, their friend.