Inquiry launched into 'dramatic' rise in number of rail consultants

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The Independent Online

An "extraordinarily high" increase in the number of consultants at the organisation running Britain's railways is under investigation by the Government, it was revealed yesterday.

The Transport minister, Kim Howells, told the Commons yesterday that an inquiry into a "dramatic" rise in general staffing levels at the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) would be especially concerned with the growth in consultant numbers. The statement came in reply to a question from John Thurso, the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, who pointed out that the SRA had spent £20m in nine months on consultancy fees.

The news follows a report in The Independent on Monday that ministers believed the SRA was unable to control costs or to deliver results and planned to strip the authority of much of its power ­ a move confirmed yesterday by a fresh Whitehall source. High staffing levels at the authority will anger passengers, many of whom were facing double-figure fare increases this week.

Mr Thurso said that since privatisation, staffing in the rail industry had "sky-rocketed", with the number of people involved in regulation increasing fourfold. "The Government may just as well have burnt that money," he said. "Under Labour, delays have doubled, one in five trains are late and there's no sign of improvement."

"More staff should mean higher levels of service, support and safety, but the next excuse for poor service may well be too many managers on the track. Inflated and inefficient rail bodies should now be streamlined in order to make the best use of passenger money for passenger services. The Government has now admitted the problem and must take action immediately."

Mr Howells said: "I certainly agree that any increase in the number of personnel involved in regulation needs to be questioned. We've asked for answers to our questions on that point and especially on the increases in the number of consultants, which does seem extraordinarily high."

Richard Bowker, the chairman of the SRA, claimed that opponents to change within the industry and Whitehall were trying to undermine his efforts to modernise the industry. Hesuggested that he had received "no indication" that his organisation was about to be reined in andThe Independent's story had been planted by those who did not wish to see him succeed.

Mr Bowker told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I do honestly think there are pockets of resistance in this industry and whoever briefed this particular story clearly is one of those who fears change."

Asked if there had been any indications that Mr Darling was planning to strip him of his powers, Mr Bowker replied: "None at all."

He added: "There are areas where there can be resistance to change. It can be in the industry; it can be in Whitehall."

A spokesman for the SRA said: "We agree that every pound has to be spent wisely and any cost on staffing and elsewhere must deliver value for money. That's why we have rebalanced our policy so that there are fewer consultants and more staff.''