Darling set to announce big rail shake-up

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Alistair Darling is preparing to announce the biggest shake-up of the railways since privatisation, it emerged yesterday.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is set to be largely stripped of its powers under the changes, expected to be detailed tomorrow by the the Secretary of State for Transport, the reports say. They add that Mr Darling intends to appoint powerful regional controllers with the authority to run both tracks and trains.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that an experiment is already in operation at London's Waterloo station, where a "Fat Controller" has authority to sort out problems affecting Network Rail or South West Trains, the only company using the station.

Department of Transport officials have been hoping to use the same model in other parts of the country, although they recognise it will be more difficult in places where there is more than one train operator involved.

The Independent reported yesterday that the Health and Safety Executive also faced losing its responsibility for the railways under the plans. The ministry refused to comment, but did not deny that an announcement was imminent. "We are not going to comment on speculation. What we want is reliable trains," a spokeswoman said.

The regional controllers will act as the linchpin between Network Rail, which is responsible for the tracks, and the 25 privately run train operating companies, the Daily Mail reported yesterday. The move would restore the traditional links between tracks and trains that were broken at privatisation.

Some senior figures in the industry characterised the proposed announcement as "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic". But, with 18 months to go to a possible election, the Government believes the industry is still hopelessly fragmented and in need of more centralised control to boost performance.

Mr Darling was absent from a Cabinet meeting at Chequers yesterday, preparing details for the announcement. Officials at the SRA and the ministry cancelled all meetings involving outside agencies.

Few senior managers expect the head of the SRA, Richard Bowker to remain in his job if his organisation is downgraded to an outpost of the Department for Transport.