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Last Updated: Monday, 3 May 2004, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Ministers to curb rail 'insanity'
A review of the railways is due to report its findings
The whole structure of Britain's railways needs a radical overhaul to tackle "crazy" bureaucracy, transport minister Kim Howells has said.

Its "maddest manifestation" was the power given to rail regulator Tom Winsor, he told the Financial Times.

It was "insane" that the regulator, not the transport secretary, decided how much would be spent on the railways each year, he said.

He signalled a review of the industry would curb the regulator's powers.

'Absurd system'

In an interview with the FT, Mr Howells said the government wanted to tighten its grip on the way the rail industry was run and regulated.

He cited the example of the 22.3bn boost announced for Network Rail over five years by Mr Winsor in December, which he said caused the Department for Transport "enormous difficulties".

It's a money-go-round and a bureaucracy which is crazy and we've got to get rid of all that
Transport minister Kim Howells
"To me it was insane that it's not the secretary of state who says how much can be spent on the railways every year but an independent regulator," Mr Howells said.

While the government would not seek to jeopardise Mr Winsor's independence, the extent of his powers over spending could not go on, Mr Howells said.

He signalled that a government review of the railways, which is due to report its findings in the next few months, would curb Mr Winsor's powers.

'Tighter grip'

It would also put an end to a management system which "rewards failure" as different parts of the industry compensated each other for mistakes

The "absurd system" meant that train operators could actually benefit when their services are disrupted, he said.

Kim Howells MP
Mr Howells has a reputation as an outspoken minister
At the moment, if track owner Network Rail failed to maintain its infrastructure properly and that lead to a broken rail or signal failure, the train operator, whose trains were unable to run, would end up better off financially, he said.

"The whole structure at the moment needs changing. It's a money-go-round and a bureaucracy which is crazy and we've got to get rid of all that," he added.

The government review, which was ordered in an effort to reduce delays to services and to cut costs, was announced in January.

'Rose-tinted spectacles'

Mr Howells said the review would herald a complete overhaul of the industry but ruled out re-nationalisation.

People tended to look back on the days of British Rail with "rose-tinted spectacles", he said.

His comments come amid continuing controversy over the condition of the UK's rail network and the costs of improving it.

A faulty set of points maintained by Network Rail contractor Jarvis was found to be the cause of the Potters Bar rail crash, in which seven people died in May 2002.

Network Rail and Jarvis admitted joint liability over the crash in April.

To me it was insane that it's not the secretary of state who says how much can be spent on the railways every year but an independent regulator
Transport minister Kim Howells
In March, the SRA announced that nearly a quarter of passenger trains were still not running on time.

And in November, the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) took over the reins from Connex South Eastern six weeks early after stripping it of its franchise because of poor financial management.

In April the SRA moved to end confusion about the long-waited upgrade of the Glasgow to London West Coast Main Line.

It put the estimated cost of the project at 7.6bn and said that it expected the line to be completed in 2008.

The project had at one time been expected to cost 13bn - more than six times its original price tag of 2.1bn.




SEE ALSO:
Are the railways on the mend?
19 Mar 04 |  Magazine


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