Brian Souter wants to change track

STAGECOACH boss Brian Souter has called for a radical reform of Britain's railways that would go some way to reuniting the trains and tracks.

• Brian Souter believes radical reform of the way Britain's railways are maintained is essential Picture: Callum Bennetts

The firm, which runs Britain's biggest commuter franchise - South Western - wants to see Network Rail reduced to the role of landlord of railway tracks, while all engineering and maintenance work would be carried out by train operators.

Souter believes a so-called "vertical integration" model would deliver "substantial savings" for the taxpayer, plus improve punctuality and safety.

A similar system was mooted in the early part of this decade but Souter believes tomorrow's spending review would provide the ideal opportunity for a complete overhaul of the system left behind by the Conservative government of the nineties.

Stagecoach's radical plan includes Scotland. The Scottish Government has control over rail franchises north of the Border but is undergoing a consultation on the current system, which closes on Friday.

South of the Border, the Department for Transport is conducting an inquiry called "Reforming Rail Franchising" which closed yesterday.

In his response to both government consultations, Souter said only a complete rethink of how railways are operated and managed in Britain will deliver the kind of cost-efficiency and performance improvements politicians are searching for. Infrastructure maintenance costs 40 per cent more in Britain than the rest of Europe.

Souter said: "We are at a crucial crossroads for the UK rail network. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver real change that will benefit both passengers and taxpayers. We believe this is the only way to deliver a safer, more efficient and more reliable railway in the long term.

"Our plans would unlock the investment and innovation of commercial operators, provide value for money, and deliver better services to the millions of people who rely on our railways every day."

The Perth-based firm has called for pilot schemes to test "vertical integration" on certain franchises.

The proposed reform would take Britain's railways a step back towards the pre-privatisation model, when British Rail ran the whole system.

But Stagecoach insists a "one-size fits all" approach would be inappropriate and different companies should continue to bid for different intercity, commuter and regional franchises.A spokesman for Network Rail said: "Network Rail fully supports better alignment and co-operation between the company and train operators and to delivering more control to its regions.

Change is needed and Network Rail will play its part in making it happen."

Souter's calls echo remarks made earlier this year by Professor Iain Docherty, a non-executive director of Transport Scotland, who said reform was needed to stem the "ballooning" public funds poured into the railway system north of the Border.