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Reshaped SRA to tackle crisis hit rail industry in 'bite size chunks'

Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority Richard Bowker has 'shaken up' the organisation in just three months. He told Steve Turner how the restructured SRA would transform the rail sector.

IT IS clearly not Richard Bowker's style to ease himself into a job but, then again, that would have been the last thing the rail industry would have needed.

In nearly three months at the helm of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), an internal restructure aimed at turning the crisis hit industry around is nearly complete.

The reshaped SRA, Bowker claims, will be more focused to deliver targets laid down in its recent Strategic Plan (NCE 17 January). Organisations were previously not approaching the SRA because they were unsure what it was supposed to be doing, says Bowker, who joined the SRA from Virgin Rail where he was co-chairman.

An SRA reshaped into the three divisions - managing the rail network, structural planning and major projects - will have far more clarity and be much more user friendly for the industry, he claims.

Bowker also promises to improve project scoping. The SRA may not be directly responsible for delivering projects, but as a major financial backer, it needs to be able to predict costs more accurately, he says.

Another priority is to stabilise current SRA projects. The SRA did not have the required focus, says Bowker. It has now 'got a grip', and it knows where it is going, with its top 25 to 30 priority projects. He points to the recent signing of the 20 year Chiltern franchise, and the short term extension to the East Coast Main Line (ECML) franchise, to support his case.

Bowker believes the deals show that private sector confidence in the industry is rapidly recovering.

Chiltern announced last week an extension of the agreement with operator M40 Trains and will be investing £371M private cash, while the two year extension to the ECML franchise will lever in £100M. 'Four hundred and seventy million pounds was quite a lot where I went at school, ' Bowker says sarcastically in a dig at critics who claim that the collapse of Railtrack has crippled private investment.

Getting Railtrack out of administration will further improve private sector investment, he says.

Since October, the SRA's relationship with Railtrack has greatly improved. Bowker puts this down to the appointment as chief executive just before Christmas of civil engineer John Armitt. 'He is calm, communicates well and is used to dealing with contractors. These characteristics are filtering down, and relations at all levels have improved as a result, ' says Bowker, who reveals that he wanted to be an engineer at school but when a place on the British Rail training programme was withdrawn due to a lack of funding he switched to accountancy.

It is hoped that the SRA's improved relations with Railtrack will help rescue the West Coast Main Line upgrade. The estimated cost of the project has spiralled from £2.2bn to over £7bn. It remains a massive problem to the industry, and one that needs to be solved before Railtrack can get out of administration.

Bowker confirms that the original project strategy was in a mess and that the contract between Railtrack and Virgin needs to be renegotiated. The stumbling block will be to keep all parties happy with the reduced train paths that come out of a reduced upgrade deal.

He says that the SRA has started to address the problem in 'bite size chunks'. He has managed to get all the major operators, including the freight lobby, involved in discussions. 'At last, all parties are working together to find a workable solution.' He denies that it will be a 'dumbing down' of the project, but says it is a case of creating a plan that gets as much as possible as quickly as possible, without setting targets that can't be met.

He adds that negotiations have been going well, with 'no major arguments' and, while passenger and freight people 'were not quite holding hands', progress was being made. He is confident that a solution agreeable to all can be found, and one that rail regulator Tom Winsor, who has to agree any revised deal, will be happy with.

Bowker's relationship with Winsor is in complete contrast to the one with his predecessor Morton. Bowker believes Morton did not see that the two organisations had two distinct roles to perform. Bowker admits that he and Winsor do not always agree, but he can see that they have vital and separate roles to play.

To strengthen the relationship, the two offices are about to publish a concordat that will explain exactly how they are to work together to regulate the industry, says Bowker.

The fact that the three major industry players - Bowker, Armitt and Winsor - are all working more closely together and have moved away from the strained relations of the past can only be a good sign for the future.

Bowker is confident that changes at the SRA and better working relationships with other rail industry leaders will lead to the 10 year transport plan target of boosting passengers by 50% and rail freight by 80% by 2010 can be delivered.

He admits that Railtrack being in administration presents some uncertainty, but he feels that the industry cannot stand still and wait - something he clearly has not done.

INFOPLUS www. sra. gov. uk

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