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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 January, 2004, 11:19 GMT
'We need radical action, not another review'
Jon Yuill was hoping a radical shake-up of the railways would offer hope to his fellow commuters. But the promised review announced by the government has left him thoroughly deflated.

Elected: Jon Yuill was voted BBC News Online's rail commuters' champion by users of the site
Voice: His role is to speak up for the commuter
Commute: Married with three children, Jon commutes by train between Witham (Essex) and London
There was a telling moment in my recent interview with Transport Minister Kim Howells, and it wasn't so much what he said, as what he didn't say. When I asked him directly why, since privatisation seemed to be such a disaster, the government didn't simply re-nationalise the rail network, there was a kind of pause, followed by a wry smile and a "watch this space" answer.

Eleven days later, and we are starting to glimpse what lay beneath this enigmatic veneer.

Mr Howells' boss, Alistair Darling, has finally had enough (as we all have) of watching the current mess unravel. The absurd situation, where millions of taxpayers' pounds are pumped into ailing rail companies, many of them paying fat salaries and bonuses to directors, has got to stop.

All of which seems to come as something as a surprise to the 250,000-a-year head of the Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Bowker. His position must be under review as Mr Darling has announced plans for (yet) another review.

One of the aims of this latest review is to try and do something to streamline the Byzantine set up inherited as a result of the disastrous carve up in the mid 90s.

Who's responsible?

Interestingly, it also brings to mind another point I put to Mr Howells, that of accountability. One of my contacts, a rail worker himself, impressed upon me that in the pre-privatisation days, the line of accountability was very much vertical. Now, it seems, it's horizontal, resulting in accountability chaos. No one knows who is in charge and who is who's boss.

However, it should be noted that both Mr Howells and Mr Darling are keen to dismiss any talk of "re-nationalisation". Frankly, they can call it what they like if they get the blessed things to run more punctually.

Obviously, with only a year or so to go to an election, Labour still doesn't want to scare the horses.

But what is clear to a one eyed wombat is that the current system isn't working.

Since Labour came to power, the number of trains running late has reached 20% - twice what it was when Tony Blair took over at Number 10. And all this, despite a cash injection of 4bn pounds a year.

It seems ministers are worried about pouring more of this money into the seemingly black hole of rail, without some assurances that it will be used properly. Mr Blair told the electorate to judge him by results, especially in the public services. Transport, and in particular rail, remains stubbornly behind schedule.

When I asked Mr Howells exactly when commuters would see a real improvement in punctuality and reliability, he replied that it would be some time.

With this new review, it seems we'll have to wait that much longer. But then if there's one thing commuters are good at, it's waiting.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

We don't need "reviews", we need a proper authority with the power to do something useful and a properly integrated system with one clear line of responsibility. Also, it would be useful to involve the passengers properly so that we have some control over timetables.
Nic Brough, UK

If you want to rearrange the system then go back to private companies owning track, rolling stock and stations serving geographic areas, and being allowed to provide a service driven by customer needs. It used to work, it could work again. Don't waste money on making railways 110% safe - roads aren't and customers don't care, don't waste effort on being 100% punctual - but keep them close, try providing enough seats, try providing the service for less than the cost of alternatives, try providing specials for special events (horse races, rugby matches, etc).
Dave, England

Does Mr Yuill really believe the poor condition of much of the UK rail network is due to the "disaster" of privatisation and companies paying "fat salaries and bonuses to directors"? Does he have any comprehension of how investment in the period before privatisation compares with that in the period afterwards? Does his extensive knowledge of the rail industry encompass the actual costs of resolving the many causes of delays? Did his rail-worker contact explain to him the unique reputation for service quality that British Rail was renowned for?
Philippa Margaretson, UK

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