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Calls for tougher rail watchdog to stop industry being used as ‘political football’


Rail industry trade body Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has called for a new rail regulator to ensure the industry is seperated from politics. 

RDG chief executive Paul Plummer wants the government to establish a regulator with greater powers and autonomy as part of his “root and branch” review into the UK’s rail sector.

The call is in reponse to the government’s rail industry reivew, chaired by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams. Work on the Williams Review began six months ago and is expected to finish in the autumn with recommendations published in a White Paper.

Plummer said a new watchdog was needed to stop the rail industry from being used as a political football.

“Too often the lines of accountability are blurred, and the public doesn’t know who is responsible for which part of the system,” said Plummer. “There are too many bodies, some with conflicting remits and competing agendas.”

He added: “That’s why we are calling for a new arms-length organising body to implement national rail policy, and prevent the railway being used as a political football.

“It would allow politicians to step back and concentrate on the big questions of what they want the railway to achieve for communities and the country. Train companies and Network Rail could focus on what they do best – innovating and creating to deliver better for their customers.”

Plummer says a new regulator would be “responsible for setting strategy, objectives and targets and for holding the industry to account […] focused on enabling the delivery of the services and improvements people want”.

“Our vision for a new arms-length body for the railway in England and Wales must be different to what has gone before,” Plummer added. “Unlike previous attempts, it should have real autonomy and real powers.”

Equipment manufacturers body the Railway Industry Association (RIA) supported Plummer’s calls for the government to be kept at arm’s length.

“The Railway Industry Association (RIA) believes that change in the rail industry should not occur for the sake of change, but only if it results in an improvement,” the spokesperson said. “That said, there is a need for the government to withdraw from day-to-day intervention in the railway, which is widespread, and to concentrate on an outcomes-based approach.

“So the Williams Rail Review should consider structures that place the government at arm’s length, but which avoid the problems encountered with the erstwhile Strategic Rail Authority.”

“On the ORR’s current role, RIA supports the ORR’s approach providing its monitoring, escalation and enforcement is risk-based, targeted, proportionate and transparent.”

An ORR spokesperson said: “The Rail Review is looking at the structure of the whole rail industry and this will clearly have implications for regulation. The ORR has contributed a formal submission to the Review and will continue to engage proactively throughout the process.”

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