Blair sends in 'hit squad' to improve failing railways

The Prime Minister has ordered a Downing Street "hit squad'' into failing train operators in a desperate attempt to improve rail services. In frustration with Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, and Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, Tony Blair has sent senior aides to franchise holders to get a grip on the network.

The involvement of members of the Downing Street policy unit highlights Mr Blair's concern that despite billions of pounds extra in taxpayers' money, the system shows few signs of significant improvement ahead of a probable general election in 18 months.

Mr Blair is targeting Sir Richard Branson's Virgin CrossCountry network, the South Central franchise, which covers London to the south coast, Thameslink, the operator between Brighton and Bedford, and Central Trains, which run trains throughout the Midlands and the north of England. They have been selected because they are "under-performing'' andofficials believe they form a microcosm of the network.

Senior executives at the rail companies resent Mr Blair's intervention, saying Mr Bowker's SRA is already far more intrusive than it used to be, and demanding substantial amounts of detailed information. A senior railman said: "We are being audited to death. This is a diversion. I want to get on with my day job of running the railways.''

Mr Blair would say some operators have shown themselves incapable of running the railways. No 10 is not only dissatisfied with the punctuality and reliability of services, it is also unhappy with targets for improvement set by the ministry and the SRA.

Anxiety over voters' perception of the industry's performance has prompted a review to be completed in the summer. The inquiry is expected to result in a more streamlined management system with fewer organisations involved and with the SRA stripped of much of its power.

Mr Darling has indicated he would be prepared to introduce legislation to place the SRA on a different footing. Some senior sources believe the authority is an unnecessary layer of management and that logically the Department for Transport should be fully in charge of strategy. An unpublished SRA strategy document, leaked to The Independent, confirmed that all the money earmarked in the Government's 10-year plan for a railway "fit for the 21st century'' is being spent on patching up the network. The draft paper reveals that the target of increasing the number of passengers by 50 per cent in the 10-year plan would be undershot. It estimatedt the increase would be 26 per cent. One observer said that the whole exercise might show Mr Blair how difficult it was to enhance performance without considerably more investment.

A spokeswoman for Downing Street said: "It is well known that the delivery unit worked closely with the departments to improve public services. Transport is one of the important issues.''

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Engineer - Linux, Windows, Cloud - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + 10% bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engin...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Inspector

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Female Buddy & Team Leader / Buddy

£11 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To join a team working with a female in her ...

Recruitment Genius: Configuration and Logistics Team Member

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has over 30 years ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence