Rail chief's future in doubt as his role in review of network is opened to 'job share'

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The future of Britain's rail chief was again in question yesterday as his control over a fundamental review of the beleaguered network was thrown into doubt.

Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), has insisted that he has been given the job by the Government of collating submissions on the future of the system. ButThe Independent has discovered that Mark Lambirth, a civil servant in the Department for Transport (DfT), has been given a similar assignment.

The SRA has sent a note to all the major players in the industry emphasising that views on the network's future should be channelled through the authority. The ministry has dispatched a memorandum pointing out that such submissions can go directly to Mr Lambirth.

Some sources say that the "job share" between the man who is supposed to be in charge of the network and a Whitehall official makes the highly fragmented network look even more dysfunctional. One senior director for the train company said it had become increasingly obvious that Mr Bowker's new job was "something of a fig leaf".

Most influential figures in the industry believe that the SRA chairman, who is respected as a railwayman but has been heavily criticised as a political operator, will leave long before his contract ends in 2006, possibly within the next few months. One train company director said that the most important submissions on the shape of the industry, some of which could argue for a much-reduced role of the SRA, should go to the civil servant, while suggestions on day-to-day operational matters should be placed in Mr Bowker's in-tray. The fact that two men seemed to be leading the review has led to considerable confusion.

The news emerges at a time when the Prime Minister has ordered an urgent inquiry by the Downing Street policy unit into the highly questionable performance of the train companies. Four operators have been targeted: Virgin Crosscountry, which operates trains throughout Britain; Thameslink, which runs trains between Brighton and Bedford; Govia, which holds the South Central franchise between the capital and the south coast; and Central Trains, which operates across the Midlands.

The exercise underlines Tony Blair's deepening concern with the rail network and Mr Bowker's stewardship of it. The Government would like to strip the SRA of some of its key functions on the basis that the Department for Transport should be adopting the "strategic" role.

Critics believe that the SRA is simply another tier of management in an industry plagued by fragmentation. It is expected that after the review of the industry, the semi-independent authority will be downgraded to the status of an organisation like the Highways Agency, which is little more than a government department.

Mr Bowker, a former senior director at Virgin Trains, took the £250,000 a year SRA job in December 2001 on the basis that he would have considerable freedom to "get a grip" on a network struggling to recover from the incompetent stewardship of Railtrack, the now defunct former operator. Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Transport, recently announced the review of the network after anxiety that the network's performance had not improved despite billions of pounds of extra in state funds.

An official at the DfT said that Mr Bowker was well aware of Mr Lambirth's role and was in full agreement with it.

A spokesman for the SRA said there was no suggestion that his new role was a fig leaf. The spokesman said that Mr Bowker had been specifically told in face-to-face meetings that his leading role in the industry was not in question.

He said: "He wants to make a contribution and he doesn't believe there should be any sacred cows." Such an approach had made Mr Bowker enemies, especially in Whitehall.