Civil servants plot rail coup at retreat

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The Independent Online

Senior civil servants were dispatched to a country mansion at a cost of £600 a head to learn how to get to grips with the activities of rail chiefs.

The seminars, talks and country walks were attended by up to 30 officials from the Department for Transport amid signs of growing tension with the Strategic Rail Authority, Whitehall sources said yesterday.

Civil servants at the department argue privately that Richard Bowker, the chairman of the authority, has usurped much of their legitimate power and they are determined to rein him in.

The department should formulate policy and the authority carry it out, they argue.

The conference, at The Node near the M1 in Hertfordshire, was ostensibly to talk about the reorganisation of the department's rail directorate, but it was also an attempt to draw up a plan of battle so that the civil servants could regain their leverage. Senior officials believe the powers of the authority should be curtailed, but acknowledge that is unlikely to happen before the next election. Officials up to the rank of under-secretary attended the session on 2 and 3 October.

The tensions arose because of personal assurances given to Mr Bowker, before he took the job on £350,000 a year in December 2001, by Stephen Byers, the former transport secretary, that his role would be more visionary than functionary.