THE man who runs public transport on Merseyside is being lined up to take on an even bigger challenge - the crumbling British rail network.
Neil Scales, chief executive of passenger transport authority Merseytravel, is in line to be the next head of the Strategic Rail Authority.
The Daily Post can reveal that Mr Scales has travelled to London for secret talks with Prime Minister Tony Blair's close advisers at 10 Downing Street.
Last night, Mr Scales admitted his name had been linked to the job but insisted he was happy on Merseyside.
The SRA has the overall responsibility for running Britain's railways, and has never been far from controversy.
As the fall-out over the bungled upgrade of the West Coast mainline continues, there are widely expected to be major changes at the top, with SRA chairman and chief executive Richard Bowker an almost certain casualty.
An influential "Future of the Railway" report by MPs earlier this month said the SRA was "largely incapable" of performing its role and called for it to be scrapped.
A senior rail industry source said: "Most people think Richard Bowker is a 'dead man walking' in his current role, and there are certain to be changes when the review announced by the Government in January is completed, probably in July.
"The shortlist of people who could take over at the SRA is probably quite small and Neil Scales is thought to be at the top of that list. He clearly has the confidence of Government ministers." When Mr Scales joined Merseytravel, it was receiving around £8m a year from Government, but that figure has now risen to closer to £60m.
The chief executive played a crucial role in persuading the Government to back Line 1 of
Merseytram, currently the subject of a public inquiry, with £170m of public money.
He also convinced Whitehall that Merseytravel should be able to appoint its own rail operator last year, rather than have the decision made for it by the SRA.
It was the first passenger transport authority in the country to win such powers and the subsequent 25-year appointment of Serco/Nedrail to operate Merseyrail has been regarded as a success so far.
Mr Scales told the Daily Post: "It is true that my name has been bandied about the industry in connection with the SRA job, and I hope that reflects well on what we have done on Merseyside.
"But there is currently no vacancy at the SRA and I am very happy here on Merseyside."