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Profile: Alastair Morton Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority

He's back. Tough-talking former Eurotunnel co-chairman Sir Alastair Morton has returned to the fray as head of the new Strategic Rail Authority. Not someone to duck a confrontation, Morton once sent the then Costain chairman and TransManche Link chief Peter Costain a cartoon of two cavemen bashing each other over the head. The caption ran: 'Does negotiating give you a headache?'

The SRA job will be tough - carried out in the full glare of media scrutiny. Morton's own £130,000 a year part-time job will rest on its success, and the careers of ministers will also be judged on his ability to deliver a rail system 'fit for the 21st century'. But then Morton is used to that.

At Eurotunnel he played a pivotal role in getting the Channel Tunnel built, battling against contractor TransManche Link to reduce the project's cost. After heavy criticism, some of it in the pages of NCE, Morton was eventually credited with preventing the collapse of the project under its £9bn debt.

Despite his reputation for abrasiveness, Morton's appointment was welcomed by train operators and Railtrack this week.

'He is a tough operator who won't be biased towards one party or another. He will take a robust but fair line and understands the economics of the business very well,' was the response of one major rail franchise holder.

Prescott appears to view his new sidekick with similar esteem. Although the two did not see eye to eye over the Channel Tunnel, a mutual respect for each other's uncompromising style seems to have developed.

Morton first found favour with Prescott after being called in to advise on the rescue package for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link early last year. Similarly, Prescott is trusted by Morton to have the political clout needed to drive through a radical reform of the rail industry.

Morton's key task will be to act as a 'real passenger's champion', taking a strategic overview of the whole rail network. He will be in charge of renegotiating the train operating companies' franchises and will also help create a more harmonious relationship between Railtrack and the rail regulator.

Prescott has made much of the Strategic Rail Authority's power to act as an operator of trains if the current franchisees do not come up to scratch. But Morton claims this will only be a last resort. 'I will not run the trains, on time or otherwise, clean or dirty,' he said. 'That only comes to my patch if things remain a mess, not if train operators have an off day.'

So how will Morton achieve the sea change in rail standards expected of him? Speaking last Thursday his message seemed simple: 'Investment, investment, investment. That to me is the key. My role is to plan, negotiate and facilitate, not to control. But people must do what they have agreed to do.'

With a track record like Morton's few in the rail industry are likely to disagree.

MJ

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