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Morton and Murray NCE meets the Strategic Rail Authority's Sir Alastair Morton and Railtrack's Simon Murray, arguably the two most influential men in rail infrastructure.

The chairman of the new Strategic Rail Authority, Sir Alastair Morton, has identified project management as the key to delivering the much promised British rail system 'for the 21st century'.

But, five years after the privatisation of the railways, the former Eurotunnel chairman does not believe proper project management is yet in place.

'The teams are in place but the project management may not be,' he says. 'Railtrack is making noises about being assured of a decent rate of return but if it doesn't manage its capital investment projects properly, it can't be assured of making money. We don't want a series of Jubilee Line Extensions. It is fundamental for Railtrack to manage its investment projects well.

'There has to be a top down ability to oversee Railtrack's investment programme,' he says. 'I understand that is why Simon Murray has been brought in (see next page). If we get the nightmare of contractors taking the client to the cleaners with claims etc the industry will have a difficult time.'

His comments are not just aimed at Railtrack; he believes they apply right across the industry. 'They have all had to start from scratch,' he says.

Morton believes there are lessons in project management and partnering that the rail industry can take from the oil industry. 'This is not a one off contract. This will last for decades. In the North Sea it started poorly, yet in the 1980s there were some pretty satisfactory projects.'

Morton is adamant that Britain's railway industry must avoid the problems experienced by the oil industry in the 1970s, caused by an adversarial contract culture: 'I'm not saying the solution has to be any particular form of contract. The key must be project management. The problem is confrontation.'

He argues that project management is not an art, it is about learning from experience. He believes there are many lessons to be learnt from the Channel Tunnel.

'The Channel Tunnel tells you how important it is to set up projects properly from the start, and the value of good project management,' he says. 'I have seen how things can go wrong and what you can do.

'There is nothing more expensive than a contractor let loose to get a project back on programme. Engineers love throwing money at projects. Yes, it is exciting, but it is expensive.'

He adds: 'The Channel Tunnel was a definitive experience for many people. I would like to think lessons were learnt, but I'm not sure they have been. There have been Latham and Egan. But the sad thing is that you go on needing these people. It probably is an overcrowded sector and the result is that contractors will say anything to get the work.'

But now could be the time for change. Morton believes the circumstances are in place in the rail sector for constructors to learn.

'When you have a programme that will last for decades, then there is room to produce improvements. But for it to work there have to be the right people project managing.'

The SRA's role is to set out the strategy to take Britain's railway network from where it is today to where the Government wants it to be.

'We took the decision 10 years ago to stop building roads, yet traffic has kept on increasing. If we are not putting it on trunk roads we have to put it on rail, but the network is clapped out after 60 years of under- investment. Therefore we have to invest to enhance quality and quantity.'

Morton sees the SRA's first task as a strategic assessment of where Britain's railways are today. Then it will set about putting in place a framework for the delivery of Britain's new railway network and its part in the Government's integrated transport programme.

'Setting a strategic framework is about clarifying what the task is and how it ought to be done. It is establishing what resources are required and pushing at the parts not coming into play properly,' he explains. 'For example, if the train operators insist in sticking to the bad old British Rail habit of making every part of every train unique then there will be a problem, because you cannot finance things with no alternative use.

'So you push the train operating companies to accept commonality. If they resist the pressure then they will get no help from the rest of the system.'

However, Morton is aware that frameworks can be double-edged swords. 'I have long argued that there are two types of framework. One is a support, the other a cage. I want to produce a supportive framework to relate all the different wants to each other.'

He sees the role of the SRA as broker rather than dictator. 'This is not going to be 'Big Brother knows best'. This is about establishing what all the parties want and how to reconcile the differences before they become conflicts.'

The SRA will also advise Secretary of State John Prescott on how to achieve the Government's aims. 'Anybody who wants something different - for example, train operators who want longer franchises - will find themselves talking to the SRA,' explains Morton.

Many people have asked what powers the SRA would have. Surprisingly Morton doesn't believe this is an issue. 'I am not aware of needing any powers. This is about negotiation between parties. But if you take John Prescott, John Reid and Opraf and aggregate their powers, then you have all you need.'

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