Darling to reveal major rail shake-up

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The Independent Online

The Government will tomorrow signal major changes in the way the railways are run in an attempt to improve punctuality for passengers.

The Government will tomorrow signal major changes in the way the railways are run in an attempt to improve punctuality for passengers.

In a White Paper, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling is expected to announce the scrapping of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and the creation of a rail agency.

This agency will take over some of the SRA's powers, with other SRA functions being passed to Railtrack's successor company Network Rail (NR).

Mr Darling could also announce that responsibility for rail safety will move from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to the Office of Rail Regulation.

Passenger groups have already warned that customers are not bothered about just who runs the railways and will only judge the changes a success if performance improves.

Train punctuality in January-March 2004 improved compared with the same period in 2003.

But for the 2003 whole year, nearly one in five trains ran late and performance - although improving - is still not up to the levels reached before the October 2000 Hatfield rail crash.

Mr Darling announced he would be holding a review of rail structure in January this year.

He said the way the industry was privatised had led to fragmentation and there were "too many organisations, some with overlapping responsibilities".

Mr Darling added that this had "got in the way of effective decision-making and frequently leads to dispute."

He went on: "The objective is clear - to streamline the structure and make it as simple and effective as possible."

This streamlining is likely to see the SRA's role in awarding rail franchises pass to the new agency, which may be part of the Department for Transport (DfT) or a separate body like the Highways Agency.

NR may take over the SRA's timetabling role and it has been suggested that Mr Darling could do away with the current complex performance payments regime between train companies and NR.

Instead, NR and the companies will have contracts directly with the Government. Train companies will operate to much tighter rules and will be judged only on punctual running of trains, rather than a host of performance indicators.

Another expected change - the transfer of rail safety responsibility from the HSE to the Office of Rail Regulation - would be well received with train companies which have endured an uneasy relationship with the HSE.

As well as attempting to simplify a complicated structural system, the review is also aimed at controlling spiralling rail costs and giving the Government more direct say in the running of the railways.