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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April 2004, 21:30 GMT 22:30 UK
Drastic rail reform call from MPs
Transport Minister Alistair Darling stands in front of the new Raewald train
Alistair Darling says he will consider the suggestion
Britain's struggling railways need a radical restructuring if they are ever to work properly, according to an influential group of MPs.

Network Rail, which replaced the privatised Railtrack in 2002, should be scrapped, they say.

And the same goes for the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) which governs the level of service for passengers.

The Transport Select Committee says both should be replaced by a single, publicly-owned railway agency.

"The government has had years to address the problems of the railway but has failed to take effective action," said Gwyneth Dunwoody, who chairs the parliamentary committee.

In agreement

The Transport Secretary Alistair Darling agreed with much of the report and said he would to consider abolishing Network Rail and the Strategic Rail Authority.

He said a publicly-owned rail agency could lead to greater simplicity for commuters.

Some of the committee's strongest criticism is directed at the government-appointed independent rail regulator, Tom Winsor.

KEY CRITICISMS
Government policy is "fundamental failure of the railway"
Fragmentation getting worse
Industry costs increasing
Confusion and "buck-passing" prevalent between major rail bodies
Relationship between Health and Safety Executive (HSE)and rail industry "very poor"
Rail Passengers Council too low-profile
MPs "outraged" that 58m of taxpayers' money used to prop up Connex's South Eastern franchise, which was eventually taken over by the SRA
The report says he has "failed in his core function of effectively regulating the stewardship of the national rail network".

Trains late

The regulator is described as "high-handed" and portrayed as a dictatorial figure who has over-stepped his brief and effectively seized control of the industry purse-strings from the government .

But Mr Winsor hit back at the findings and said: "The report contains many significant errors of elementary fact on which its fundamentally flawed conclusions are then based.

"I reject entirely the unfounded allegations in relation to my office, and am disappointed the report fails to acknowledge the very real achievement of regulation and the railways in the last few years."

The damning report, called the Future of the Railway, is the result of an inquiry into the state of the railways by the Labour-dominated committee of backbench MPs.

They found that less than 80% of trains arrive on time.

Latest estimates say it will be five years before performance matches British Rail's best figure of 90% of trains on time.

Industry problems

The SRA is described as "largely incapable" of its job of setting standards for the private train companies.

Richard Bowker, chairman of the SRA, defended the organisation's achievements, such as tackling the West Coast Mainline.

Tom Winsor
Rail regulator Tom Winsor comes under fire

But he agreed the current structure of the industry was "overly complex".

Network Rail said it was disappointed the committee failed to recognise improvements in infrastructure, cost-cutting and the upcoming investment in railways.

On Wednesday it announced it would spend 26bn in five years to boost train punctuality to 90%.

It was clear the committee wanted to renationalise the railway, it said in a statement.

The Rail Maritime and Transport union welcomed the report and its call for re-integration in the public sector.

'Network turmoil'

Shadow transport secretary Theresa May MP said the report showed how Labour had let passengers down.

She said: "Despite Labour being in power for over seven years, performance has got worse. And the network is still in turmoil."

The call for wholesale upheaval comes in the middle of a government review of the structure of the railways, due to issue its findings in the summer.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Simon Montague
"Network Rail was set up by the government less than two years ago"




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