Watchdog blasts SRA over £2bn train disaster

Michael Harrison,Business Editor
Monday 22 December 2003 01:00

The Strategic Rail Authority is to be sharply criticised by the Government's spending watchdog over the botched introduction of a new £2bn fleet of trains in southern England.

A report due out early in the new year from the National Audit Office is expected to highlight the SRA's failure to ensure there were sufficient power supplies on the network to enable the 2,000 new carriages to be brought into service.

In the event, hundreds of carriages have had to be mothballed at Ministry of Defence sites while a £1bn upgrade of the power supply in the southern half of the country is completed by Network Rail.

The SRA has been forced to compensate train operators to cover the cost of lease payments on the trains until they are able to start carrying passengers. Industry estimates have put the potential cost to the taxpayer at up to £100m.

Draft copies of the NAO report were sent out to various parties, including the SRA, Network Rail, train operators and rolling stock leasing companies, last week and the final report is expected to be published in early February.

The SRA's chairman, Richard Bowker, unveiled a new rolling stock strategy last week which takes on board some of the criticisms made by the NAO. In particular, the new strategy commits the SRA to oversee the specification and procurement of new trains. This includes ensuring that new rolling stock is compatible with the network and requiring train operators to liaise with Network Rail and the Health and Safety Executive early in the procurement process. A director with specific responsibility for delivering the strategy has been appointed.

The 2,000 new carriages being delivered to South West Trains, South Central and Connex South Eastern represent nearly half the new trains ordered since the privatisation of the rail industry in 1996. In the case of South West Trains alone, it is estimated that about 500 of the 1,000 Siemens-made Desiro trains it is leasing from Angel Trains will have to be kept in storage.

All of the trains are due to be in service by the end of next year to replace the 1,749 old slam-door carriages being phased out on safety grounds. However, the power upgrade is not due to be complete until 2006.

The SRA has always had a legal obligation to give direction and guidance in respect of the railway but critics say this failed to happen in respect of the rolling stock orders in the early days of the body under its then chairman Sir Alastair Morton. "Under Morton, the SRA was a bit of a free-for-all. Bowker has brought much more direction into it," said one railway executive.

Mr Bowker said it was not the intention of the SRA to meddle where the market did a better job. "The strategy sets out a clear and limited role for the SRA - to ensure that there is an efficient and sustainable market for rolling stock supply that encourages innovation, and to let the market get on and deliver it."

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