Railway chief on brink of early departure over 'bloody' reforms

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The Independent Online

Richard Bowker, the head of the railway network, is on the verge of being forced out of his job because of a government plan to dramatically curtail the powers of his organisation, according to senior sources.

The chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority is said to be furious at the shake-up of the management of Britain's beleaguered railways to be announced on Monday by the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling. As well as the demotion of the SRA, Mr Darling will reveal a plan to strip the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) of its responsibility for the railways.

Rumours swept the rail industry yesterday that Mr Bowker had cleared his desk and left the SRA, although that could not be confirmed. Industry sources also said he had cleared his diary and had not been attending pre-arranged meetings for much of the past week.

Mr Bowker has told friends he has no intention of resigning, which suggests the Government may have to sack him.

Some senior figures in the industry characterised Monday's proposed announcement as "Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.'' But, with 18 months to go to a possible election, the Government believes the industry is still hopelessly fragmented and in dire need of more centralised control to boost its performance.

Mr Darling is expected to set out options for reorganisation, which will include stripping the SRA of much of its independence and switching responsibility for safety from the HSE to his own department or to the new rail regulator who will take up his post in the summer.

In order to prepare the details, the Transport Secretary was a notable absentee from a cabinet meeting at Chequers yesterday. Senior officials at the SRA and the department cancelled all meetings involving outside agencies.

Few senior managers expect Mr Bowker to remain in his £250,000 job if his organisation is downgraded to an outpost of the Department for Transport. Officials at the ministry have already created a "shadow'' SRA within the department.

Speculation yesterday that Mr Bowker had already resigned or told ministers he intended to do so was denied by the SRA's chief spokesman.

On being asked the question by The Independent, he said: "In the spirit and letter of your inquiry, the answer is no, absolutely no. In any way you want to word it, no.''

However, the SRA chairman, a former senior director at Virgin Trains, has found his room for manoeuvre being limited. A draft annual strategic plan submitted to Mr Darling's department by the SRA was scrapped amid concerns about its implications for public spending. It is proposed a fresh document be published in the wake of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's comprehensive spending review, due in the summer. Mr Bowker's pet project - a £35bn north-south high-speed line - has been postponed indefinitely.

Industry sources believe Richard Brown, chief executive of Eurostar and formerly group commercial director at National Express, which holds eight train franchises, could take over from Mr Bowker.

A source said: "I can't see Bowker putting up with any restrictions on his ability to take decisions. At Virgin, he had huge scope to act as an entrepreneur. If the Government presses ahead with the plan, he would become a prisoner of the Civil Service. One thing is certain. If the Department for Transport takes over running the railways it is a guaranteed failure. Nobody there has any idea how to run a railway.''

Another senior figure said there were "huge troubles'' in the industry over funding. "Things are very tense. Running something which is over-budget is always pretty bloody, especially when the Government is involved. This is bloody with knobs on."

The HSE has also come in for intense criticism over its bureaucratic approach to the rail network. The executive's alleged penchant for committees and procedures led to the departure last year of Alan Osbourne, after just 11 months as the director of rail safety.