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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 19:29 GMT 20:29 UK
Darling grapples with changes
Tom Symonds
By Tom Symonds
BBC transport correspondent

Train
A major shake-up of the rail network is to be announced

Last week Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, still grappling with the major changes planned for the railways, visited an obscure office building in Croydon.

He was opening a new local control centre, designed to bring the managers responsible for train and track together in an attempt to make the fractured railways work more closely.

Eventually there will be eight centres, each with its own "fat controller", with power over their own slice of the network.

Making the management of the railways more simple is what the Rail White Paper is all about.

As Mr Darling told me: "I think we need to be clear who's responsible for what.

"Part of the problem now is that there's all sorts of blurred responsibilities... and sometimes there's several organisations all apparently responsible for doing the same thing which is why I said back in January I want to streamline the organisation."

To understand what the government's doing, you really have to have some idea of the turmoil there has been since privatisation

Over the press conference coffee and Danish, the train company's commercial manager sighed.

"Rail review", he said, "another period of change? Makes no difference to me.

"I wouldn't know where I was if things weren't changing all the time."

Which is pretty much the story of the last decade on the railways.

To understand what the government's doing, you really have to have some idea of the turmoil there has been since privatisation.

New readers start here.

'Endless delays'

They sold off the track to one company, the trains to three others.

Then they let about 25 other companies actually run the trains.

At Hatfield the track they had sold broke. Literally.

Confronted with the possibility of faulty track around the country, the company in charge - at that point Railtrack - was not quite sure what to do.

The ensuing disruption caused endless delays and cancellations for passengers
It slapped a series of speed restrictions on the network and began a mammoth and costly programme of track replacement.

The ensuing disruption caused endless delays and cancellations for passengers.

At about the same time, Railtrack was struggling with its other big problem - how to turn the aging West Coast Mainline into a railway of the future without spending 13bn in the process.

Eventually the government lost patience with Railtrack.

'A bit embarrassing'

Ministers planned and executed a radical plot to deprive the company of money and bring about its collapse.

Of course the government realised it would be a bit embarrassing if train services ground to a halt.

It created a new company to run the rail network. Someone threw a few words into a hat and came up with a name - Network Rail.

There was another new body too, the Strategic Rail Authority.

It was created to turn government dreams of punctual trains and happy passengers into reality.

But on the other side of the platform there was the rail regulator, whose job it was to decide how much the punctual trains would cost the not-so-happy tax payer.

By this point, like fretting commuters on the rush-hour train home, all these rail chiefs were starting to bump shoulders and an enormous Catch 22 started to develop.

The government was telling the SRA to make the trains run on time.

The SRA was telling the train companies to try harder.

The train companies were telling Network Rail to sort the track out.

Network Rail was telling the rail regulator it was going to cost an awful lot of money.

And the regulator told the government, several times, that he was supposed to be independent and whatever he decided it was going to cost, the government was going to have to pay.

It sounds complicated, and it is.

But the government's problem with the railways boils down to something really quite simple.

'Impotent'

Alistair Darling was being asked to spend a lot of our money to sort out two problems that were not really the fault of the government - the aftermath of that crash at Hatfield and the horrendously expensive work on the West Coast Mainline.

Even worse, Mr Darling was not really able to decide how much of our money he wanted to spend, because that was the job of the rail regulator.

From now on the government will decide how much we spend, and what we spend it on
His officials felt impotent in deciding what the money was spent on, because that was the job of the SRA.

Mr Darling never wanted to be in that situation again. In January he came clean.

It was, he said, "no way to run a railway".

There would be a review, and a new system.

From now on the government will decide how much we spend, and what we spend it on.

The government will have more power over train services than it is had for decades.

At least now, you will know who to blame.




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