NS Interview - Richard Bowker

The boss of the rail network urges us all to be "more understanding" of its problems, but insists th

It may be faint praise, but any praise will do. "I do not think we have one of the worst railway networks in western Europe." Richard Bowker, the thirtysomething chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, tries at least to be positive. It's not easy, but he knew what he was taking on when he agreed to oversee the UK's creaking network.

He has to be both nerd and slick operator. His is one of the most sensitive and political jobs in the country. He has to give convincing reasons why a particular branch line is to close. At the same time he has to persuade Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to hand over the money and give him the power to sort the system out.

Next year's comprehensive spending review will be critical for the survival of the rail network. It has to make its case against competing bids from Health, Education - and the road lobby. "If you look at the railway industry's record over the past few years [it gives you] a lot of sympathy with Brown's cynicism," Bowker says. "It's crucial that the industry demonstrates it's going forward."

He identifies a succession of government errors: failure to think strategically in the 1970s; failure to invest in the 1980s; a botched privatisation in the 1990s. Finally, in a desperate attempt to deal with gridlock on the roads, it tried to pile too many people on to trains that cannot cope.

According to Bowker, our tracks take more trains on them than their equivalent anywhere else in Europe - hence his much- lampooned announcement last month that the train companies would axe 104 services per day. A smaller network will be a better network, he argues. And in spite of everything - in spite of Hatfield, Potters Bar, the wrong kind of snow, the sight of the old Railtrack boss Gerald Corbett on that funny pull-me-push-me maintenance machine - Bowker insists that, yes, he would have privatised the network back in 1996 and, no, he would not now put it back into public hands.

His is not, however, a light regulatory touch. Bowker is everywhere, setting "acceptable" levels of profits for train companies, determining "passenger journey quality", directing who runs which routes to where and for how much. His staff, at the authority's headquarters near Victoria Station in London, has almost doubled. This is command and control. The Tory vision - to let the market decide the right level of service provision - was "utterly flawed", Bowker argues.

I ask him about our obsession with travel, or "hyper-mobility", in the jargon. If we can't cope, why not simply discourage people from moving about so much? "With wealth comes the desire to travel," Bowker says. "We should see travel as a good thing, consequent on our position as a wealthy nation. But it has put a significant strain on our transportation system. There was a view back in the late 1990s that we had a real problem with congestion and that the railways would be able to pick up the strain - you would be able to decant that off on to the railways. That is not the case. Both modes are heavily congested. The railways are no longer a fix for another mode's problems. We should embrace the freedom and the desire to travel but we need to make sure that our infrastructure can cope. It is no longer the case that the railways can simply mop up everyone else's congestion."

What about - as John Prescott said, but then said he never said - driving people out of their cars? Bowker says it has become too cheap to drive, relative to the cost of going by train. "Giving people choice is important. If they choose to value convenience or personal space factors higher, then that is their choice. The only issue is: is road travel properly priced compared to the public transport alternative? I do worry that the unit real cost of motoring is falling, that it is distorting the competitive advantage favourably towards road. As cars become more efficient, even if petrol prices remain broadly the same, the real cost is falling . . . I do not believe we can continue to build additional road capacity without introducing some form of pricing mechanism.

"I'm not suggesting that we go for a blanket road-pricing approach; you can be much more surgical about it. We need a hard think about how we price, particularly for any expansion in road use. We need to think very carefully about whether or not access to road networks, certainly in congested places at certain times of the day, carries an economic premium for the user. But we need to reflect the true economic trade-offs. I don't believe that one should seek to price people out of their cars as an objective in itself. But it does need to be considered as part of a larger sustainable transport policy. There are tremendous environmental, social and economic benefits of rail, and I just worry sometimes that the numbers aren't correctly balanced against each other."

The trouble is that, even if people are cajoled or coerced out of their cars, they will find the rail network already over capacity. What then? Bowker's answer, it seems, is that we should grin and bear it, and cope as best as we can. He suggests that while we all wait for major infrastructure projects to be sorted - for new track to be laid, for power supplies to be installed to cope with the new rolling stock that is standing redundant in sidings - the rail companies could be doing the simple things better. "It comes down to basic things like cleanliness, staff, communication, information. People forget it is a service industry. It does have to demonstrate that it's adding value. But sometimes you'd never know that in the way you're treated as a customer."

I wonder which adjective would best describe the state of our railways. I imagine Bowker is going to be measured but still critical. I raise my eyebrows when he offers the following: "inconsistent". This seems to take management school confidence-building to new extremes. "There's an awful lot of good happening. A third more people using the railways, 20 per cent more trains, £2bn of rolling stock, the major upgrade of the west coast main line. You know, the successes are all too easily forgotten."

Compare the reliability of rail, air and road in the UK and "rail does very well", he goes on. "We should use rail's performance as a selling point, not as a reason to say what a mess we're in. We're starting from not a bad place; we just need to be a bit better." All this as train-operating companies struggle and Network Rail, son of the unloved Railtrack, heads for the biggest loss in the history of Britain's railways.

The media, Bowker maintains, concentrate only on the negative. People who use the rail system are less dismissive than those who don't. All this negative talk is having a damaging effect on morale, and increasing resistance to change. If people really want a better railway they should be "more supportive and show a little more understanding".

The implication is that long-suffering passengers should suffer a bit longer, preferably in silence, while the improvements he promises eventually materialise. Things are bad, but they could be a lot worse. I make a last attempt at extracting from Bowker some acknowledgement of crisis and disaster, at getting him to talk the way commuters talk. What about those notorious leaves on the line? "The French and Germans have just as big an issue with leaves on the line as we do." But we do, it seems, have more deciduous trees than elsewhere. "There's a lot of people putting in a lot of effort to make leaves on the line a manageable issue."

I can't blame him. Everyone knows the score. Bowker's job is part chairman, part cheer leader. But how, I ask, did we get into this state? Why is Britain so bad at infrastructure, at big projects? Why can't we build things? Why can't we make big things work? "Over the past 30 or 40 years," he replies, "there has been a lack of vision and a lack of sheer bloody-mindedness. Look at what happened in the 1950s. Somebody said, 'We're going to have a motorway' . . . and they just got on and did it. It's as if we've taught ourselves as a society 'you can't think big, you can't think grand'. It is partly a funding legacy, but it's also an attitude, a state of mind. We could do it in the past. I think we're capable of doing it again."