BRITAIN’S national railway must complete before Christmas its third major restructuring within a decade, assuming that the latest Railways Bill becomes law this month and is not derailed by a general election in May. Or maybe it is the fourth, depending whether you count the replacement in 2002 of infrastructure manager Railtrack (private sector) by Network Rail (public sector in all but name).

To herald the transfer of strategy and policy-making from the doomed Strategic Rail Authority (public sector, but with an independent voice) to the Department for Transport, a conference took place on February 3 at which rail industry stakeholders were able to debate ’The Future of Rail: Making it Happen.’ It presaged the point at which civil servants heading up the new DfT Rail Group will become directly responsible for quite detailed decisions on investment, franchising passenger operations and the level of service provided (if any).

With both passenger and freight traffic on a rising trend, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling was upbeat. ’We must look towards expanding capacity where it is necessary’, he declared, citing Crossrail and the Thameslink 2000 upgrade - neither of which is funded. ’But we need to look ahead 10 to 20 years’, he continued, creating media excitement by describing ’the possibility of high speed lines to the north and south’ as ’big issues that need to be looked at - and they will be.’

But none of Darling’s hype could disguise the harsh reality that driving down the grossly inflated costs resulting from the chosen privatisation model is the government’s absolute priority, closely followed by improved timekeeping. A high-level group known as the ’Quadrilateral’ representing Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation, the Association of Train Operating Companies and DfT Rail, chaired by DfT Director General Sue Killen, was told on January 24 by DfT’s Director, Rail Strategy & Resources, Mark Lambirth ’what you people have to understand is that the future is about service cuts and fares increases’.

At the February 3 conference, when ways of coping with growth without expanding infrastructure were being discussed, we sought Lambirth’s views on suppressing demand through fare rises. ’I might or might not have views, but I don’t think I’m going to articulate them in this forum’, he replied cautiously. ’There is more than one angle to this. It won’t just be an affordability issue - it will also be a value for money issue.’

Meanwhile, consultants are being hired to determine which services operated by the new Northern Rail franchise provide value for money, despite the fact that Serco-NedRailways only took over in December. The projected subsidy for Northern alone averages £278m a year.