At the heart of the Government‘s strategy is a new Strategic Rail Authority. Its powers and influence should be extensive. The aim of the SRA will be to maximise investment, give a strategic direction for the industry, ratchet up standards and promote the reintegration of the network.
It will take over the Franchise Director‘s powers and the Regulator‘s consumer protection responsibilities. The budget it will inherit from the Franchise Director (£1.6 billion this financial year) will be supplemented by two new funds with a combined budget of £100 million.
The Infrastructure Investment Fund will fund strategic investment projects.
The Rail Passenger Partnership scheme will support innovative regional and local schemes.
The root of the SRA‘s power will be its control over franchising. When franchises begin to expire - in 2003/4 - the SRA will ”have the opportunity to specify service levels and passenger benefits which fully reflect our integrated transport policy•.
This could mean better safeguarding for services, a simplified and better protected fares structure and, unlike now, enforceable standards for cleanliness, information, station facilities and so on.
To keep private operators on their toes, Mr Prescott is retaining British Rail‘s ability to bid for franchises and to take over any existing franchises that fail.
Before the next round of franchises the SRA will also have much tougher powers to regulate existing operators. Unlike the Franchise Director and the Regulator, it will be able to levy instant fines on errant operators. The Government will consider extending existing franchises but only on the basis of significant commitments on investment, quality and value for money.
To help in its function of reintegrating the network, the SRA will contain head-to-head competition on the rail network within a ”long term policy framework for competition, ensuring continuing safeguards against erosion of a properly integrated rail network•.
It will also have a ”major role in setting future standards for timetabling• and presumably the SRA will also have a major role to play in a new national public transport information service, which will provide information about all forms of public transport and which should be up and running by the year 2000. The SRA will also inherit key responsibilities for consumer protection including the closure process and the Rail User Consultative Committees which will be strengthened.
On freight, the SRA takes over Government‘s responsibilities for grants. And RDS can pat itself on the back for its role in defending potentially useful rail land. The Government has agreed to suspend the BR rail land sales and review the remainder of the BR land portfolio with a view to ensuring no more useful sites are lost.
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