09 January 2004
Plans to further centralise control of Britain's rail network could bring an end to the 'messianic individual' approach to regulation, which hinders effective co-ordination across the sector, a leading think-tank has claimed.
But transport experts at the Institute for Public Policy Research believe moves to tighten the government's grip over the Strategic Rail Authority should be accompanied by wider reform, including the merger of rail regulation and health and safety functions.
Tony Grayling, associate director at the centre-Left IPPR, said that leaked proposals to increase ministerial control over the SRA, currently an arm's-length agency, would help to improve the performance of the railways.
Ministers are reportedly unhappy that the SRA has been unable to control the spiralling cost of running the network.
'Our feeling is that a single body responsible for co-ordination of the network, regulation and health and safety would be more effective,' Grayling told Public Finance. 'The sector is currently outmoded and fragmented, which brings with it inherent problems.'
One major problem, Grayling believes, is the existence of the separate, independent Office of the Rail Regulator.
'Regulation is currently in the hands, at least in theory, of a messianic individual who decides the public interest and can, for example, delay vital infrastructure work. That [power] should fall under the SRA's remit.'
Grayling believes the current rail regulator, Tom Winsor, has exercised his powers carefully. Winsor, who has been at odds with the government and the SRA, will step down in July and it was revealed this week that his likely replacement will be former regulator Chris Bolt.
Bolt, ORR chief between 1998 and 1999, is currently the arbiter of disputes over the London Underground public-private partnership, and Grayling believes that this experience will be vital in putting the rail sector back on track. 'The regulator's office needs an individual schooled in arbitration – someone who resolves disputes more than they decide policy.'
Hopes that the days of the powerful individual regulator are at an end were strengthened by news that Bolt is likely to chair a board of nine watchdogs.
SRA chair Richard Bowker has, however, said he was unaware of moves to place the authority under ministerial control.
An SRA spokesman added: 'We have not been informed of any changes and remain committed to pursuing value for money improvements to rail networks under our existing remit.'