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A new platform for rail

AGENDA

The latest vision for the UK's rail sector hopes to cure past ills and breathe new life into the network. Russ Lynch assesses its chances of success

WHEN transport secretary Alistair Darling unveiled his vision for the rail sector last week, observers could be forgiven for thinking 'not again, please' But The Future of Rail represents the latest - and, hopefully, final - attempt to sort out the culture of 'blame and buck-passing'which the Government says is endemic in the network a decade on from privatisation.

So rejoice - now the politicians and the transport mandarins are back in charge.The stillborn Strategic Rail Authority has been firmly cast into the sidings and the Rail Regulator's power to set spending - long criticised by ministers as absurd - has been taken back into the hands of the transport secretary.

The proposals come just weeks after Network Rail itself went through long birth pangs with a massive reorganisation of its regions to adapt to bringing in 18,500 staff as maintenance comes in-house. Now it's doing planning and timetables as well.

The Strategic Rail Authority will not be missed.The National Audit Office sounded the death knell in May when it pointed out that the body lacked the powers to provide true leadership to the industry. It's difficult to be strategic when you haven't got any authority.

A source at one rail contractor said: 'It was never entirely clear what the SRA's role was. It was overly bureaucratic, and I don't think the industry really related to it.'

Most contractors have welcomed the proposals - as they do at least tidy up the chain of command.The Government will set out a Statement of Reasonable Requirements for Network Rail, enforced by the Office of Rail Regulation.

The paper states: 'This will mean there is a clear understanding of the outputs that Network Rail is expected to deliver, how it will be held accountable and what enforcement action can be taken in the event of under-performance.'

An insider at another major firm said: 'This seems like a step back towards renationalisation. Our only concern is Network Rail. If they are taking on these extra responsibilities, then they need to make sure they don't take their eye off the ball.We need the work to keep coming.'

Network Rail, where a consultation on the changes is under way, is determined that this will not happen. A spokeswoman said: 'The day-to-day delivery of the network is the number one priority.The structural changes that we have already made - such as bringing maintenance in house - have already had an impact and we will be continuing to spend to keep driving up performance.'

This has been borne out by Network Rail continuing to let a raft of major renewal contracts to the likes of GrantRail, Jarvis and Amey under the shadow of the rail review.The organisation is driving a far harder bargain than its profligate predecessor, Railtrack.

And, crucially, the Government states in the White Paper that it will honour the rail regulator's £26 billion spending settlement announced last December.

More worrying for the industry is the continued waiting game being played for the real prizes on offer.With secure rail investment needed consistently to deliver real improvement, politicians will have to prove they can resist scouring the sector for cuts in harder times when there's an election around the corner.

Rail's future: key points

The Government will take charge of strategy, setting levels of public expenditure and taking buying decisions.

The SRA's functions and financial obligations move to the Department for Transport.

Network Rail will be given clear responsibility for operating the network, leading industry planning and setting timetables.

The number of franchises will be reduced and aligned more closely with Network Rail's regional structure.

Increased role for the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly and the London Mayor and more local decision-making in England.

The Office of Rail Regulation will cover safety, performance and cost.

The regulatory system will be streamlined to reduce bureaucracy and encourage culture change. Safety regulation will transfer from the HSE to the ORR but will remain completely independent of Government and the industry.

Ten years of restructuring

November 1993: British Rail's fate is sealed as the Railways Act receives the royal assent.

January 1994: Train operating companies begin bidding for franchises from the Government; three rolling stock leasing companies formed to lease trains to TOCs. Office of Rail Regulator set up to monitor Railtrack - the new private firm in charge of infrastructure assets.

April 1994: Railtrack formally separated from British Rail, taking charge of all the fixed assets of the rail network.

April 1996: Railtrack floated on stock market; contractors queue up to buy former British Rail maintenance businesses.

April 1999: Strategic Rail Authority launched 'to give direction to the industry' n October 2001: Railtrack placed in administration after transport secretary Stephen Byers decides to end handouts to the struggling firm.

September 2002: Network Rail takes Railtrack out of administration and institutes a stringent review of costs and infrastructure assets.

October 2003: Network Rail decides to take track maintenance work back in-house, involving the transfer of 18,500 staff.

July 2004: Office of Rail Regulation takes over from former rail regulator Tom Winsor.

HSE to lose responsibility for rail safety

LEADERS of the Health and Safety Executive were left fuming after the responsibility for rail safety regulation was transferred away from them.

The Office of Rail Regulation will now oversee safety alongside its existing responsibilities as economic regulator of the network.

HSE leaders lobbied hard to keep control of rail safety but Transport Secretary Alistair Darling sided with their opponents, who voiced concerns that the current regime was over-bureaucratic and too much of a financial burden on rail suppliers.

Health and Safety Commission chairman Bill Callaghan said: 'We are naturally disappointed at this decision. It is our firm belief that safety regulation should be independent of its industry and that any regulator should have teeth to be able to enforce measures where necessary.'

Union leaders also condemned the move and highlighted fears that safety standards were under threat.

Paul Noon, general secretary of inspectors' union Prospect said: 'If safety regulation becomes part of the body that makes decisions about funding, or economic regulation, there is a real risk safety will be compromised.'

Steve Kay, Prospect branch chairman at HSE, said: 'This is an empty political gesture to pander to those in the rail industry who have been lobbying for a softer regulatory regime.We hope for the sake of railway workers and the travelling public that safety will not be compromised and that improvements in safety will continue to be made when the risk demands it.'

Staff from the HSE's HM Railway Inspectorate will now be transferring to the Office of Rail Regulation while the Health and Safety at Work Act will continue to apply on the railways.

Mr Darling was keen to emphasise that the move did not signal a watering-down of safety standards on the network.

He said: 'I am personally committed to ensuring that safety remains a priority for the industry. I want to see proportionate, risk-based safety decisions, and to ensure duty holders take responsibility for assessing and managing risk.

'That does not mean a reduction in the levels of safety.'

The Railway Inspectorate was transferred to the HSE from the Department of Transport in 1990 and its role was endorsed by Lord Cullen in his report into the Ladbroke Grove disaster.