NETWORK RAIL could regain control of plans to expand the rail network following the government industry review announced by Transport Secretary Alistair Darling on Monday.
The move would see the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) downgraded or even scrapped, said rail industry insiders.
It would also cut bureaucracy and clarify roles and responsibilities, they said.
The rail industry review will focus on the changes needed to improve rail performance and better regulate safety (see box).
Darling told the House of Commons on Monday that the structure and organisation of the industry since privatisation in 1997 has led to 'fragmentation, excessive complication and dysfunctionality'. This had compounded the problems caused by decades of under investment, he told MPs.
Darling said the results of the review would be announced when Chancellor Gordon Brown published his Comprehensive Spending Review in July.
'There are too many organisations, some with overlapping powers, ' said Darling.
'This gets in the way of effective decision making and frequently leads to unnecessary wrangling and disputes.'
Most recently the SRA has been involved in a row with the Rail Regulator over the timing of improvements to the West Coast Main Line (news last week).
The SRA has also been criticised for slow progress in developing projects to expand the rail network.
The review has been taken as signal by some industry insiders that government is ready to disband the SRA, with strategic decisions taken by the Department for Transport (DfT).
Network Rail could then be responsible for working up new schemes as well as carrying out maintenance and renewals work.
Regional decisions could be devolved to the Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly and regional passenger transport executives.
'The railways need a much simpler structure where responsibilities are clear. We had that in the early 1990s with the old British Rail structure and it would work well again, led by a stronger Network Rail, ' said Open University senior research fellow Stephen Potter.
Leeds University professor of transport economics Chris Nash agreed that a merger of the SRA and Network Rail was a possibility.
'Network Rail manages enhancements anyway and it would simplify some the issues and cut down on duplication, ' he said.
In a statement Network Rail insisted that Darling had made it clear that its structure will not be reviewed.
But Railway Civil Engineers Association past chairman Graeme Montieth disagreed: 'He does not say that he is not going to touch it [Network Rail]. He merely says that it is operating with a clear focus and will continue to do so.'
Montieth added that with its experience, Network Rail could comfortably take on the extra responsibility of enhancements.
'You could argue that whether the SRA does it or Network Rail does it is irrelevant. An awful lot of people in the industry think we will end up with British Rail without the wheels.'
Darling ruled out nationalisation, indicating that the train operating companies would remain private.
He added that independent economic regulation for railways is 'essential' and will be 'central to our proposals'.
But in a thinly-veiled attack on rail regulator Tom Windsor, he added that 'it must be for government to decide how much public money is spent on the railway and determine priorities'.
To access Darling's speech go to www. nceplus.co.uk
Darling set to streamline rail safety standards
Railway standards and safety regulation face a major shake up following the government rail industry review announced this week.
Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said that railway safety standards had become over cautious and that safety was becoming an 'obstacle to providing reliable services'.
'Safety has improved on the railway, but there are overlapping responsibilities between the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate (HMRI), the Railway Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) and the Railway Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), ' said a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesman.
Streamlining safety on the railways could place the HMRI in the Office of the Rail Regulator or in the DfT, he said.
The HMRI is currently part of the HSE, but one industry source said that in this position railway safety officials were more 'interested in trip hazards next to railways and not concerned with broken rails.'
The source added that there was a shortage of HSE inspectors to carry out the work.
One rail consultant said that placing railway safety in the Office of the Rail Regulator would be better than giving it to the DfT.
'I have reservations on how much more the DfT can take on, ' he said.
The rising cost of the railways has been linked with more stringent safety legislation following the rail crashes which have taken place over the past five years.