Darling takes over strategic control of railways

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The Independent Online

The Government took more direct control over the railways today in an effort to make the network more passenger-friendly.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced in a White Paper that he would take charge of setting the strategy for the railways and that the Labour–created Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) would be "wound up".

The new-look railway will provide proper incentives for train companies and Railtrack's successor company Network Rail (NR) to perform well.

This would be to stop a situation which had "left the taxpayer writing blank cheques for an industry that it did not control".

The Government will set out what NR is expected to deliver for the public money it receives.

Mr Darling also announced that responsibility for rail safety would pass from the Health and Safety Executive to the Office of Rail Regulation.

Mr Darling also announced there would be an increased role in railways for the

Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and the

English Passenger Transport Executives.

The regional committees of watchdog body the Rail Passengers Council will be scrapped and there will be a better deal for freight on the railways.

Some of the changes proposed will need primary legislation and a Bill will be introduced at the first available opportunity.

Mr Darling said today: "What we have achieved is a great deal of streamlining and a simplified structure.

"Too often under the present system companies have been able to pass the buck for poor performance. This streamlining will benefit passengers. I had become convinced that the structure we had was a barrier to improved performances."

Mr Darling said the SRA, currently chaired by Richard Bowker, would probably end its life in the second half of next year. Mr Bowker will stand down in September this year.

Mr Darling said: "I am sorry about Richard Bowker. He goes with my best wishes and my strong support. I appreciate what he has done."

The White Paper spoke today of "bringing to an end buck-passing and blurred accountability that often characterise today's railway".