Livingstone may run London rail network

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Ken Livingstone could take over responsibility for London's massive rail network under proposals being considered by ministers.

Ken Livingstone could take over responsibility for London's massive rail network under proposals being considered by ministers.

The Department for Transport has told the Mayor of London that his ambitious plans to take charge of the busiest, most complicated and most troublesome part of the system will be given serious thought.

If the Government presses ahead with the proposal it would substantially undermine the status of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) that manages the national network. It is expected to resist the move.

Preliminary talks between senior representatives of Transport for London (TfL) and government officials have gone well, according to sources close to the discussions.

Under the detailed blueprint to be tabled next week by Bob Kiley, Mr Livingstone's Transport Commissioner, TfL would set fares, decide which services should be provided and impose standards on train operators.

At present TfL has responsibility for the Tube and bus services. The SRA allows it only limited input into decisions affecting the "overground".

The initiative springs from the ambition of London transport chiefs to co-ordinate surface rail services with the Underground and bus networks. Discussions expected to begin next week will need to thrash out which rail routes might be controlled by TfL and how far out of the city centre its jurisdiction would reach.

Under the proposals, the SRA would keep responsibility for longer distance services feeding into London.

The blueprint being drawn up by TfL is part of the review of the ailing rail network which was announced by the Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, in January. Apart from any logistical strengths of the Mayor's plans, there are strong electoral reasons why the Government might want to devolve responsibility for London's rail network to Mr Livingstone. If the services continue to underperform, the Mayor would be blamed rather than the Government.

Even if ministers reject his proposals, they are likely to insist that TfL has greater input into the SRA's decision-making process in the capital. The seriousness with which ministers are treating the proposal is a mark of the enhanced political standing of Mr Livingstone, who was recently re-admitted to the Labour Party.

The Department of Transport said yesterday that there was no commitment to implementing Mr Livingstone's proposals, but a spokesman said they were being given serious consideration. "Transport for London is clearly a big player and we will be talking to them in detail.'"