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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 16:36 GMT
Rail improvements 'under threat'
Railway workers on a track
Rail service improvements could be under threat
Long-awaited improvements to Britain's rail network are threatened by a cash squeeze, an industry chief has warned.

Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), said that its annual report in January will identify ways to manage costs and minimise the number of projects at risk.

There are lots of bits of a 'jigsaw' to pull together a very robust case for remuneration

SRA

A spokeswoman for the SRA told BBC News Online: "If we don't get a grip of costs and don't do things more efficiently, we're not going to get anywhere."

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said the rail industry needed to be tougher about controlling costs and better at driving up the standard of customer service.

'Shambles'

Shadow transport secretary Tim Collins said the government's 10-year transport plan was "in crisis" while those involved were "attempting to distance themselves from this shambles".

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Don Foster also criticised the government, saying it had taken little action on "the problem of too many contractors on the line" and needed to ensure that the best use was made of limited resources.

In its 10-year plan, the government set out a series of rail objectives, but some are threatened by the surge in demand on SRA resources.

The SRA is now hoping for an increase in government funding in its 2004 spending review, and told BBC News Online that it was "getting all things in place" to put its best case forward.

Although the authority has declined to identify projects at risk, electrification and plans to upgrade the north-south Thameslink line were quoted by the Financial Times newspaper as likely targets for cutbacks.

Plans to increase rail capacity in the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, and build the east-west Crossrail line in London, could also suffer further delays.

Boosting the budget

The SRA said the cuts were not automatic.

But its chairman Mr Bowker has said the industry needs to persuade ministers to increase funding in a 2004 spending review in order to meet all these improvements.

In return, the network must improve its performance and cut costs.

The SRA spokeswoman told BBC News Online:

It's just part of being realistic about what we can do

SRA

"We need to get a grip of the underlying cost base.

"There are lots of bits of a 'jigsaw' to pull together a very robust case for remuneration."

Rail fare review

The SRA's 10-year budget of around 33.5bn has reportedly been almost entirely used up because of increased demand for maintenance and building projects.

The West Coast Mainline project, for example, went significantly over budget leaving less money in the pot for other schemes.

The spokeswoman said the SRA was now looking at reviewing a number of policies, including rail fares but would not comment on whether this would mean an increase or decrease in ticket prices.

"There isn't a list of things that are being hit," she said.

"It's just part of being realistic about what we can do."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Simon Montague
"It could well be a long journey towards modernisation"
The BBC's Robert Parsons
"The SRA's ten year 33 billion budget is reportedly almost exhausted already"
Transport Secretary Alastair Darling
"People cannot assume the government are going to write a blank cheque"

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