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Give us a lead, Mr Darling

Comment

Is transport secretary Alastair Darling's decision to launch yet another review of the rail industry driven by a real desire to boost efficiency in the industry or simply a new plot to contain transport spending in the short term? I cannot help but suspect the latter.

Without question the current structure of the railways is not working well in terms of bringing forward new schemes and, crucially, bringing forward the funding for these new schemes.

Something must be done to sort out the confusion and delay in taking decisions.

But with Chancellor Gordon Brown now going full steam ahead to prepare his comprehensive spending review for the next three years, it is easy to imagine that the transport secretary is under some pressure to curb spending on the railways.

Darling quite rightly points out that what we now have is 'no way to run a railway'. But we must be very careful to identify exactly which parts of the railway structure need urgent review and which need time to settle down following the last overhaul. Drastic action could, after all, cause even more uncertainty in an already uncertain world.

The last reorganisation saw not-for-profit Network Rail stripped of its responsibility for new rail enhancement projects.

Instead this became the domain of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) while Network Rail focused on the mammoth task of maintaining and renewing the existing rail network.

Freed of responsibility for steering complex private/public schemes such as Crossrail, Thameslink and the East London Line, Network Rail has been able to concentrate on the engineering challenges rather than the political.

Yet the SRA has so far failed to get any of these desperately needed new rail schemes even close to becoming reality. It has spent huge amounts of money investigating, proposing and preparing them but has not managed to secure the private or public funding that is needed.

At the heart of this failure of course is the on-going tension between the rail regulator and the SRA. The battle played out between the pair over who really calls the shots has left a trail of confusion and inactivity while the real decisions ultimately remain with the Department for Transport - or more accurately the Treasury.

It is very important to debate how much we are prepared, as a nation, to spend on the railways.

But we should not be lulled into believing that the railway can be run on a shoestring. It cannot. If we want our existing railway system to be transformed into a decent, modern, safe rail network - and this is something I presume the nation wants - then it is going to be expensive. It is going to cost every bit of the £60bn earmarked in the original 10 year transport plan.

And if we want the rest of our transport system to develop then we must also realise that it will require large sums of cash - much of it public - and some very innovative and expert engineering. But we will first need some very bold leadership and forward thinking from our politicians. So it is over to you once again then, Mr Darling.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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