Firm hired to find good news about the railways

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The Independent Online

Britain's rail chief has commissioned a high-powered consultant to find and publicise "good news'' about the rail network amid growing minist- erial concern over the image of the industry.

Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, is seeking "positive information'' on the railways to try to counteract a series of damaging news reports.

Alistair Darling has urged Mr Bowker to have the information ready by 25 September, when the Secretary of State for Transport is due to address a symposium sponsored by the authority. Mr Darling is also anxious that the report, being prepared by the consultants Arup, will be ready for the Labour Party conference.

The minister is hoping to announce better news on the reliability and punctuality of the network, which had been improving before emergency speed restrictions were imporsed in the recent heatwave.

He is also keen to announce orders for trains - although the announcements will only be confirmation of what has already been revealed. Arup will announce that the train protection and warning system, which stops trains if they pass red lights, is due to be completed for key parts of the network before the end of the year. Figures will be produced to show that the number of trains passing signals set at danger, the cause of the Southall and Paddington disasters, has dropped.

Mr Darling was told by the Prime Minster to lower the profile of the Transport Department and of the rail network in response to the controversy generated by his predecessor, Stephen Byers. But now Mr Darling believes he needs to emphasise the achievements of the industry. He is aware, though, that he will not be able to reflect the optimism that was the underlying theme in the Government's 10-year plan, announced in 2000 by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Recent reports have suggested that the modernisation of the west coast main line may not be completed, that standards of maintenance on branch lines were to be cut and that there would be fewer train services and higher fares.

The rail network's reputation as a "financial black hole'' may mean strict limits on budgets over the next few years. Mr Bowker will have a tough task in persuading the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase the subvention to the industry in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

The Independent revealed on Saturday how subsidies to train companies had rocketed. Operators have received an extra £1.5bn in government handouts. While the private-sector train companies were supposed to have been paid £2.7bn of taxpayers' money over three years, they have actually soaked up £4.2bn. Spending on the maintenance and improvement of the infrastructure has also soared out of control, according to Tom Winsor, the rail regulator.

The Independent also reported how an attempt to keep costs under control had led to a massive cut in a programme to improve stations, from about 1,000 to 68.

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