Blair orders hike in SRA train targets

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister has intervened in the management of the ramshackle rail network to demand an eight-fold increase in targets for improvement.

Rail chiefs are aiming to ensure that around 90 more trains arrive on time every day, but Tony Blair thinks the figure should be more than 700.

With just 18 months to go before a likely general election, Mr Blair is concerned that despite billions of pounds extra in state subsidies, services are failing to improve.

According to the latest figures, 81 per cent of trains a day arrive on time - exactly the same proportion as last year. The official and relatively modest target for improvement from the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is for 81.5 per cent of services to be punctual, but Mr Blair's Downing Street Delivery Unit is insisting on 85 per cent.

As part of the Prime Minister's initiative, the unit has begun an inquiry into four train operating companies, chosen because they are seen to be failing, but also because they form a microcosm of the network. The companies are Sir Richard Branson's national Virgin Cross Country franchise; South Central services between London and the South Coast; Thameslink, operating between Bedford and Brighton; and Central Trains, which run services throughout the Midlands. In each case the unit is interviewing senior executives and then poring over company books to find out what is going wrong in order to make suggestions for improvement.

A senior official at the SRA said that while the Prime Minister's aides were keen to impose higher targets, there were executives at the authority who also believed objectives should be more ambitious. Despite Mr Blair's concern, it is understood that he recently intervened to prevent the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, performing radical surgery on the rail industry. Mr Darling wanted to strip the SRA of much of its power.

After an apparent intervention by Richard Bowker, the beleaguered chairman of the authority, the Prime Minister insisted on a "review'' and consultation exercise first. However, it is expected that the end result will be the same when the process is completed in the summer.

In a telling parliamentary answer last week, Mr Darling indicated that his plans for the railways had not changed. "Some of the organisations we've got at the moment I do not believe are necessary, and I believe they can be rationalised,'' he told the Commons. The Transport Secretary also said that legislation was "inevitable'' - a strong hint that the SRA's statutory functions will be heavily curtailed.

One senior industry source said: "I can just see the authority of the SRA draining away. Bowker has simply won a stay of execution.''

Meanwhile, a radically better performance by the state-backed infrastructure organisation Network Rail has been undermined by a spate of suicides on the railways. One at Balham in south London recently caused delays to some 250 services because the police were unable to decide immediately whether there had been a murder. Signalling problems on the intercity Midland Mainline have also had an impact on the smooth running of the timetable.