Rail network out of control, say MPs

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The Independent Online

The whole system for managing the railways should be swept away and a new version of British Rail created, according to a report by an all-party group of senior MPs.

Few of the organisations or personalities presiding over the network escape vilification in the Commons Transport Committee's report, which declares that the system is "out of effective control". The rail regulator, Tom Winsor, is denounced as a "high-handed rail czar", Richard Bowker's Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) is branded "utterly impotent", the Government is accused of "timidity" and Network Rail's performance is described as "scandalous".

Services provided by private train operators are "poor" and so is the regime imposed by the Health and Safety Executive's rail inspectors. Representation provided for travellers by the Rail Passengers' Council is "frankly disappointing".

The industry is becoming more fragmented, costs are increasing, performance remains "in the doldrums" and the SRA appears "utterly incapable of managing significant improvements", the report says.

Management of the rail industry is characterised by internal "squabbling" and "buck-passing". The committee concludes that the "fundamental failure of the railway is one of government policy".

The document - strongly worded even by the standards of the committee's acerbic chairwoman, Gwyneth Dunwoody - calls for a new public-sector railway agency. The new all-powerful organisation would combine the functions of the SRA, which awards train franchises and attempts to deliver government policy, with those of Network Rail, responsible for maintaining and renewing the infrastructure.

Although the hard-hitting report does not say as much, the agency envisaged by the MPs would bear a strong resemblance to the old state-run British Rail - albeit with scope for the provision of privately run train services. The document argues that the record of British Rail in the 1980s demonstrated that public subsidies could be reduced, financial targets met, investment increased and service quality improved.

The report reserves its strongest condemnation for the rail regulator. It is "absurd" that Mr Winsor decides how much the state should spend on the railway, the MPs say. The Government simply honours the cheque for billions of pounds written by the regulator. That is "an intolerable restriction" on the Government, they say. The report referred to the "high-handed" manner in which the regulator approached his role, and criticised the "deep failure" of rail governance which allowed Mr Winsor to act as a "rail czar". The private sector needs protection from arbitrary government decisions, but the current power of the regulator goes "far beyond reasonable bounds and must be reined back".

The document says neither the Government nor the SRA has any practical control over "enormous sums" of public money directed to the railways. Under the stewardship of the SRA, the "vast majority" of private train operators have been unable to produce the improvement in efficiency confidently anticipated at the time of privatisation in the mid-1990s.

The network is being run by a "patchwork" of companies which operate in a variety of ways with a variety of incentives and most of whom bear little risk, the report says.

Mr Winsor said the report contained many significant errors on which "fundamentally flawed" conclusions were based. "I reject entirely the unfounded allegations in relation to the performance of my office and I am disappointed that the report fails to acknowledge the very real achievements of regulation and the railway in the last few years."