A regional transport authority called yesterday for total independence from the "bureaucrats" in charge of Britain's rail system to escape the dead hand of Whitehall. Rail chiefs were warned that their concentration on inter-city and South-eastern services could lead to "major infrastructure failures" in the rest of the country.
Merseytravel, the public sector organisation in charge of transport in the Liverpool region, said that unless it was given sole charge of the network in its area, proposed cutbacks would lead to deteriorating punctuality and delays to vital projects.
The regional authority won partial independence from the national structure last summer when it took over the functions of the Government's Strategic Rail Authority, which chooses operators for train franchises. In a document submitted to the independent rail regulator, Tom Winsor, Merseytravel now says it should also assume the responsibilities of the state-backed Network Rail, which maintains the track and operates the signals.
Under Merseytravel's blueprint, the operator it has appointed to run trains in the area will take over the duties of Network Rail, giving the regional authority complete control of its rail system. The division of responsibilities on the national network between "wheel and track" has come under constant attack from the critics of privatisation and has been blamed for a series of serious accidents.
The document says the adoption of "significantly reduced" standards for all but inter-city and South-eastern services means maintenance and renewal of the infrastructure "is no longer a priority" for the SRA or Network Rail. Merseytravel says present proposals would lead to a "progressively more unreliable railway with prolonged service shutdowns and disruptions".
The paper says the priorities of SRA and Network Rail come at a cost to regional and suburban networks. Both organisations had failed to takes account of the importance of rail networks to the regions.
It makes the point that Merseyside has been designated an "objective one area" under European directives because of its poor economic performance. Almost 40 per cent of households in the region have no access to a car so reliable and frequent train services are vital for giving Merseysiders access to jobs, health care, leisure and training opportunities. Any dilution of the maintenance regime would undermine attempts to generate jobs on Merseyside, the paper says.
"Any short-term saving achieved through such a reduction in maintenance and renewal levels may lead to increased long-term costs as previously deferred maintenance requirements manifest themselves through major infrastructure failures and requirements for wholesale replacement of prematurely deteriorated track and infrastructure assets."
The proposals by Network Rail would compound existing funding problems over Merseytravel's £100m plan to improve stations and track. Postponement of the project has been "due to delays in decision-making and continual changes of policy by Network Rail's bureaucratic central decision-making processes".
Merseytravel says present levels of access charges - the money paid by train operators to Network Rail - would be "more than sufficient" to fund a safe and reliable railway if there was better management of resources.It also says the network organisation's "risk-averse" policies inhibit investment.
Autonomy helps develop most punctual service
By Ian Herbert
It was with characteristic local wit that the Liverpudlians christened their newly privatised Merseyrail system "Miseryrail" in the 1990s.
A local bus operator was running the rail franchise at the time and it was quickly overwhelmed. Liverpudlians would have taken some convincing that by 2004 they would be travelling on trains that ran punctually and at fares that are to be frozen at the rate of inflation for 25 years.
Though the 80-mile network remains one of the most heavily used outside London, with 24 million passengers a year, it topped the national tables for rail punctuality last month. Only the Isle of Wight service performed better.
Liverpool's declaration of independence from the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) allowed the Mersey Passenger Transport Executive (PTE) to establish a 25-year contract, the longest in Britain, with Serco and Ned to run the system. And the PET has recently spent £32m on refurbishing its 59-strong fleet.
John Mayor, 20, of Prenton, Wirral, said: "There are fewer delays and cancellations with the new operators. The new carriages are much more pleasant because they have modern, decent seating that has not been vandalised like the old ones."
The PTE has also been able to act unilaterally on anti-social behaviour, introducing the first ban on alcohol on British trains.
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