Blair sends in 'hit squad' to improve failing railways

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The Independent Online

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 An unpublished SRA strategy document, leaked to The Independent, confirmed that all the money earmarked in the Government's 10-year plan for a railway "fit for the 21st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.''