A plan to strip rail bosses of much of their powers in an attempt to tighten the Government's grip on the network was dismissed as "tinkering" yesterday by passengers' representatives.
Anthony Smith, the national director of the Rail Passengers Council, said the fundamental problem was that the industry was too fragmented and there needed to be "radical" measures to bring it together. The initiative to rein in the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), bringing it under the direct control of ministers, was like "trying to push water uphill", Mr Smith said. The idea of an "arm's length" SRA was as valid now as it was when it was set up by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, he added.
News of ministers' radical attempt to turn the industry round before the next election came as passengers faced double-figure increases in rail fares, at a time when punctuality, in many cases, is getting worse.
Tens of thousands of people returning to work yesterday after the Christmas break suffered severe disruption, which is expected to continue until Thursday, on the busiest commuter network in Britain. South West Trains services from the South-east and the West of England into London were cancelled, re-routed and delayed after a crane fell on to tracks near Clapham Junction in south London during weekend engineering work.
Network Rail, the infrastructure organisation, launched an investigation after a 140-ton crane collapsed on Sunday on the first weekend of work which will continue for months.
Theresa May, the spokeswoman on the environment and transport for the Conservatives - who privatised the railways in 1995 - said the new approach by the Government was the latest decision in a string of disastrous ideas to cure Britain's railways. She said: "It demonstrates the Government has lost both its vision and direction, and is creating a smoke-screen to hide its failure and incompetence.
"It has already squandered £14bn of taxpayers money, and delivered an unreliable and inefficient service. The passenger is expected not only to pay more for a lamentable service but also to accept this 'chop change' attitude to management."
She said the Labour Government promised improvement within 12 months when it was elected in 1997. "We are now seven years on," she said.
But the expected change in the SRA's status was welcomed by the Blairite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Tony Grayling, its associate director, said that such a move was "not before time".
He said that there was a strong case for the merging the SRA, the Office of the Rail Regulator and the rail safety arm of the Health and Safety Executive to create a single strategic regulator for the railways, responsible for services, safety and development of the network.
There was a strong case, he said, for merging the SRA, the Office of the Rail Regulator and the rail safety arm of the Health and Safety Executive to create a single strategic regulator for the railways, responsible for services, safety and development of the network.
"This would ensure a far more balanced and integrated approach to regulation and investment in capacity, reliability and safety."
¿ Drivers to the west of London face long delays today because of major roadworks on the M25 motorway near Heathrow. The two-year project to widen a section of the motorway was due to start last night and is expected to cause severe rush-hour delays.
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