Rail authority head attacks 'scrapping' of franchising process

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The Independent Online

The Government's 10-year rail plan was thrown off track last night as the industry's most powerful figure called for a rethink and ministers were criticised for effectively scrapping the refranchising process.

Sir Alastair Morton, retiring chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), said the Government was unlikely to attract the planned £34bn from the private sector to ensure the success of its blueprint. Reservations were registered over a plan by Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, to bring about immediate improvements in services.

Mr Byers said the SRA should concentrate on winning enhancements from train operators within existing franchises or in return for two-year extensions, rather than emphasising the negotiation of 20-year licences.

His radical approach was questioned by the Tories, by rail unions and passenger groups, all concerned the plans might deter long-term investment.

Introducing the SRA's annual report yesterday, Sir Alastair warned it could be 2015 before the railways achieve a high-quality service. He said that last October's Hatfield disaster had revealed a "crucial failure" of the relationship between train operators and the maintenance of the track.

Bernard Jenkin, the shadow transport minister, said the Government was "tearing up" its rail policy. "This announcement is a slap in the face for Sir Alastair Morton and a policy for short-term results as opposed to long-term progress. After one year of the ten-year transport plan, the Government's policy is in tatters and the investment that they promised is pie-in-the-sky."