Ministers are drawing up plans to strip Network Rail of responsibilities and give train operating companies the power to repair and upgrade tracks and signalling.
According to the Telegraph, transport secretary Chris Grayling will set out proposals in a speech on Tuesday to hand some level of control of rail infrastructure to franchise holders such as Virgin and Southern, in an attempt to end delays and cut costs.
Mr Grayling is expected to say that he wants the publicly-owned Network Rail to share responsibility for running the tracks with train operators, with one idea being ‘vertical integration’, under which operators would be given power over the running of their sections of the rail infrastructure when new franchises are awarded.
The Government is understood to hope the move will incentivise train companies to complete repairs more quickly and possibly herald cheaper fares.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport confirmed that Mr Grayling will give a speech on Tuesday but declined to comment further.
Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said: ‘Privatising our rail infrastructure would be an irresponsible move. The last thing our railways need is another layer of fragmentation and complexity.
‘Train operating companies will only engage with this if they can extract more profit from taxpayers and fare-payers. It’s remarkable that operators such as Southern who display a cavalier attitude towards cost cutting and safety might be invited to take responsibility for the repair and maintenance of the tracks.’
Last week Network Rail’s chief executive, Mark Carne, announced that it is to set up an independently chaired review ‘to help the company break down the barriers to competition in all elements of delivering projects’.
Mr Carne said: ‘I too often hear that the barriers for new suppliers, with potentially different ways of working, are substantial.
‘I want to encourage contestability in all elements of railway project delivery to encourage third party funding and financing of projects, innovation and new models of delivery.’
Also last week, ministers announced that up to 84,000 passengers on Southern services would be eligible for four weeks’ taxpayer-funded compensation for delays, cancellations and disruption caused by both Network Rail and ‘unacceptably poor performance by the operator’.