Darling 'tries to gag train companies' on bad news

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The Independent Online

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, is encouraging the use of gagging clauses to "bury bad news" about the rail network, senior industry sources said.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, is encouraging the use of gagging clauses to "bury bad news" about the rail network, senior industry sources said.

Some train operators have been warned not to brief journalists and others have been made to sign agreements that limit their ability to inform the public about the industry.

Richard Bowker, the powerful chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), and Ceri Evans, his spin doctor, are insisting on tight control on media relations.

The Prime Minister told Mr Darling when he was appointedas Secretary of State that one of his principal tasks was to ensure a lower profile for the network after an avalanche of negative news under the stewardship of his predecessor, Stephen Byers.

Ministers have decided, privately, that a massive improvement in services is unlikely this side of the election and so they are anxious to avoid bad publicity.

To prevent leaks, some companies are contractually obliged to refrain from non-attributable briefings and to stick to "on the record" statements about routine matters.

The tightest restrictions have been placed on companies that are run on a cost-plus basis – those that are in effect run by the SRA – and those that have been granted extra subsidies from the taxpayer. They include Arriva Trains Northern; Arriva Trains Merseyside; First North Western; Wales and Borders; Wessex Trains; and the Great Northern routes of West Anglia Great Northern. Also under tight control are Virgin; ScotRail; Central Trains; Connex South Eastern; and Anglia Railways.

One source said: "Operators really do have to watch what they say and not attempt to give any in-depth information to journalists. The SRA is trying to bury bad news. Some of these companies are in effect employees of the authority."

Another senior industry figure said the power wielded by the SRA gave rise to a half-way house between a privatised and a nationalised system and was the "worst of all worlds".

The official said the restrictions on information amounted to evidence of the fact that the network had, in effect, been re-nationalised. Apart from its rising power over train operators, the SRA is also insisting on controlling Network Rail, the not-for-profit infrastructure organisation that took over from the private-sector Railtrack. "Network Rail is totally in hock to the SRA. The authority controls what it can spend and which project it should undertake. In effect, the organisations are one and the same. It can only be a matter of time before they become the same organisation."

The authority will come under pressure over its communications strategy tomorrow, when ministers are due to answer a parliamentary question on the subject. Paul Tyler, the MP for North Cornwall, has asked the Secretary of State to explain to the Commons what the objectives of the strategy and whether he will comment on its management.

Ten years after rail privatisation, critics believe the parlous state of the network has been caused partly by the aftermath of the Hatfield disaster and partly by ministers' insistence on persevering with a deeply flawed sell-off. Because of the growing control by the SRA, the train drivers' union Aslef is threatening strikes to force the reinstatement of national pay bargaining.

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