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Paving the way for change

The Strategic Rail Authority this month released its long-awaited strategic agenda. Steve Turner looks at its proposals and asks SRA infrastructure director Peter Hansford what he hopes it will achieve.

Earlier this month the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) published its long-awaited Strategic Agenda, 18 months later than originally planned. The agenda sets out the SRA's thoughts on how the rail network should be developed and financed, but still leaves some questions unanswered.

There are various reasons for the late arrival of the agenda.

The SRA says it needed to see what was in the Government's 10-year transport plan, published in the autumn, before it set out its thoughts. It also had to wait for the Rail Regulator's Review, published in October and see how regional transport plans evolved. The Hatfield crash caused further hold ups.

As a result, the SRA was criticised for failing to deliver its vision. There are also complaints that the Strategic Agenda gives little idea of which rail projects are to go ahead first.

This and reports of a row with transport minister Lord MacDonald over the award of the East Coast Main Line train operating franchise have raised questions about the previously unassailable position of SRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton.

SRA infrastructure director Peter Hansford says that the agenda is more of an interim document, published ahead of its Strategic Plan, which is due this autumn. He says the agenda points a 'way forward for the industry. The SRA has a leadership role and the agenda is a significant part of that way forward.'

The agenda is a substantial document. It details the history of the railways since privatisation and of the SRA since its inception. It also sets out the challenges to the industry - in terms of safety, performance, growth and the challenges to various groups.

The agenda then describes moves by the SRA to take forward its refranchising programme, as well as plans to increase freight on the railways.

It ends with a list of 120 possible schemes that could be considered to develop the network - though it concedes that not all will go ahead.

Many industry experts expected the agenda to be more specific and to prioritise schemes, but Hansford maintains that it is necessary as a basis for further consultation to allow the more detailed Strategic Plan to be finalised.

'In order to go forward, a significant amount of consultation and agreement is required, ' he says. 'The agenda is a more public document than the plan will be, for a wider audience, to enable discussions to take place within a context.' He describes the agenda as a 'scene setter'.

Several factors are expected to influence the Strategic Plan and the timing of its publication, says Hansford. One is the Cullen inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove train crash. This is expected to make recommendations on rail safety improvements when it is published later this year. 'It is a piece of the jigsaw, ' Hansford says, 'and it would be stupid not to wait for that.'

Uncertainty about Railtrack's financial position also needs to be resolved. One of the main proposals in the agenda is the reduction of Railtrack's role in major projects. Morton now sees Railtrack's business as being split between two separate entities. One is the infrastructure maintainer and operator. The other is major projects.

The agenda proposes the setting up of consortia to finance and build major projects in the future, removing the financial strain from Railtrack, which will take over the running of projects on completion.

Hansford says that there is a lot of consultation to be done before definite plans for these new design build finance transfer contracts can be drawn up.

'Railtrack will fund some projects, ' he explains, 'but not all.'

But whoever funds the schemes Railtrack alone will run the entire network, a situation Hansford describes as 'appropriate', to ensure safety and efficiency.

'There is a significant amount of detail to be sorted out, but the key is the relationship between Railtrack and the SRA, ' he says.

He agrees that the new management within Railtrack, including new chief executive Steve Marshall, has made negotiating easier, adding 'there is a will on both sides to make it work'.

With all the recent upheavals in the industry, the Government's 10-year transport plan, and its proposals for the expansion of the Railway network, have started to look ambitious.

But Hansford believes the goals are still achievable. 'Yes, it is still a 10-year plan, ' he says.

The agenda and subsequent plan, are 'all about targets by 2011', he says.

'Clearly, we don't fall off a cliff after 10 years, and we are looking beyond, ' he adds, citing the example of the proposed third high speed line from London to the North as an example. 'But, ' he adds, 'the 10- year plan is still very much achievable.'

The refranchising programme is central to the prioritisation of schemes. The agenda says that the SRA will have completed or be 'within sight of' agreeing heads of terms for 18 replacement franchises by the autumn.

Given the problems encountered by the SRA recently with negotiations for the East Coast Main Line and the Central Trains franchises - both of which were suspended - sceptics believe that the goal is ambitious.

Indeed, the agenda admits that the process is behind schedule and that some refranchising negotiations may not be completed before April 2003.

Hansford agrees that the refranchising programme will take time. 'The process is under way, and it is a long process, but there will be no pause, ' he says.

He insists, however, that this will not delay the plan.

In the meantime, the SRA is developing its agenda and building up a team of in-house engineers to commission studies from external consultants.

At present, there is an engineering team of 16, but Hansford says it will grow to about 30, in-cluding two 'prominent' engineers who will start before Easter.

Beefing up internal expertise should, says Hansford, strengthen relationships with consultants. 'Engineering experience is important, ' he says, 'and our structure reflects that.'

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