ANOTHER restructuring of Britain’s privatised rail network, announced by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling on July 15, will see the Strategic Rail Authority abolished next year. Responsibility for letting franchises and managing the passenger train operators will pass to civil servants at the Department for Transport.

Legislation likely to be introduced this autumn will give Network Rail ’clear responsibility for operating the network and for its performance’, according to Darling’s white paper The Future of Rail. The infrastructure owner ’will lead industry planning, set timetables and direct industry recovery’ from disruption, and the complex web of financial penalties traded between the companies will be scrapped.

The government’s principal objective is to regain control over the rapidly-escalating subsidies demanded by Network Rail and train operators. To force costs down, DfT will take all strategic decisions in future, and notwithstanding the pretence that NR is a private-sector company, it will now work to objectives set by DfT. The ability of the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to determine NR’s income will be circumscribed.

Another crucial change is that HM Railway Inspectorate, which regulates safety, will move from the Health & Safety Executive to ORR. Since HMRI switched from the transport ministry to HSE in 1990, it has lost expertise and much of the respect built up since its formation in 1840. The climate of fear created by the rush to prosecute after every accident has had a major impact on engineering and operating costs.

On July 20 Darling produced a transport white paper which confirmed that he has stopped light rail development in England dead in its tracks. Escalation in project costs is the reason, he said, ’and in each case there is no certainty costs won’t rise further.’ New lines will go ahead only when costs come down. Likewise, Darling said a hybrid bill for powers to build the east - west Crossrail tunnels across central London would be introduced, but construction can only begin if and when a substantial funding gap has been bridged.

Every rail investment submission will be rigorously scrutinised, and even where there is a degree of devolution to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, DfT is demanding that rail projects are properly tested against alternatives, normally buses. This applies especially to the six English Passenger Transport Executives covering major conurbations. The Future of Rail even promises that provided it is ’part of a strategy which includes reductions in rail services’, the government will ’put in place arrangements which make it easier to introduce Quality Contracts for buses.’