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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
Tough challenge for new SRA boss
Richard Bowker
Bowker has reportedly agreed to take on the SRA role
Tom Symonds

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) has had a short and difficult life at the centre of Britain's rail system.

It has had to couple together the often competing interests of the government and the privatised rail industry.

No-one was more aware of this than Sir Alistair Morton, the man Virgin Trains co-chairman Richard Bowker is to succeed as SRA chairman.

Last week Sir Alistair told the Transport Select Committee: "I began to find life difficult with ministers last year... there has been a lack of stability in the industry since October 1999."

The political direction for the railways altered when the new Transport Secretary Stephen Byers took over after the election.

Franchise row

One of the Strategic Rail Authority's key roles is to award franchises to train companies.

Mr Byers decided short term improvements were needed, and therefore, short term franchise extensions.

Sir Alistair wanted to award contracts that would last 20 years so that train companies would feel able to invest more money.

It appears their differences of opinion were irreconcilable. Sir Alistair resignation takes effect in December.

Many challenges

Into this crossfire walks his replacement, 35-year -old Richard Bowker - the energetic head of Virgin Rail. He is likely to face many challenges.

First of all he has to sign off the Strategic Plan for the future of the railways. Even though this has been work in progress for more than a year, the collapse of Railtrack may mean more tinkering is needed.

Then he'll have to decide how to force train companies to spend money on their services without the promise they will be able to run their trains for years to come.

In effect it means getting them to think beyond the improvements the government is demanding for the next few years - they will need to plan major projects to improve stations and introduce new trains.

'Railway czar'

The SRA also has to become a leader in the future development of the rail network itself.

Some months ago the government stripped Railtrack of its role in co-ordinating expensive upgrades to key rail routes like the London to Edinburgh East Coast Mainline - and handed it over to the authority.

But the East Coast plan has been the subject of much wrangling. Its cost has risen steadily to nearly 4bn and now the Strategic Rail Authority has to decide who should build it. Another job for Mr Bowker.

He will increasingly be seen as a sort of Railways Czar - overall his challenge is to deliver the government's vision for train services - 50% more passengers by the end of the decade.

Richard Bowker's success will depend on bringing together a fractured and troubled industry.

See also:

23 Oct 01 | Business
New Railtrack will be a 'good risk'
23 Oct 01 | Business
Row brews over new rail chief
15 Oct 01 | Business
Railtrack set for Chunnel deal
16 Oct 01 | Business
Railtrack's risky business
15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Byers faces resignation demand
14 Oct 01 | Business
Pressure grows for Railtrack inquiry
15 Oct 01 | Business
Railtrack: What happens now?
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