Railways may be better run, but will they run on time?

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The Independent Online

It is only 10 years since the privatisation of British Rail began, and only four years since John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority to make it all right again. Now the Government is shunting desperately backwards once more.

It is only 10 years since the privatisation of British Rail began, and only four years since John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, announced the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority to make it all right again. Now the Government is shunting desperately backwards once more.

In a new plan announced yesterday, the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling declared that the Strategic Rail Authority was to be abolished, the department would take more authority for the direction of the industry, the safety function was to be removed from the Health and Safety Executive, and regional bodies would get more say in running the trains.

That something had to be done is not in doubt. Although privatisation is unfairly blamed for all the industry's woes, the fragmentation of responsibility and the duplication of supervision that came with it is not. Over the last few years, safety considerations, capital shortages, labour unrest and confused lines of reporting have combined to produce a service that, to its customers, is late, unreliable and unsafe.

Overall, yesterday's announcement should simplify the line of responsibilities, at least. The removal of the rail authority was overdue. It simply added a layer of bureaucracy to an industry that needed less, not more. The reduction in the number of franchises is logical and the resistance to calls for renationalisation wise. The decision to move safety to the responsibility of the Office of Rail Regulation, on the other hand, is more debatable. The HSE may have become too over-cautious, but putting safety together with the regulation of operations could produce a swing too far the other way.

But the chief worry about Darling's plan is not that it oversimplifies the industry's structures, but that it does not go far enough. By increasing the authority of the ministry, it is inviting ministers and officials to interfere and fuss. Giving regional bodies a bigger say is right in principle, but in practice is likely to confuse matters further. Network Rail is given great responsibilities, but its power remains ill-defined.

Rail users do not want more structural fiddling. They want better results. It is far from certain this halfway house will provide that.

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