Tom Winsor could be the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary. But how did he perform in his last public role – as Rail Regulator?

 
So, Tom Winsor, one time Rail Regulator, is to be the new Chief Inspector of Constabulary. Well, well. Police chiefs are up in arms, huffing and puffing, but are Outraged of ACPO right?

Looking back at railway history is interesting enough, but it is the people who are most fascinating. I would love to be Suetonius and write The Twelve Railway Caesars, for Tom Winsor was the highest of high-octane Caesars. What was he really like as a Rail Regulator?

You certainly knew he had arrived. On his first morning in July 1999, he got off his train at Charing Cross and, having alerted them in advance, stood on the platform and harangued the press on the incompetence of the train operators and Railtrack. Good copy, widely covered in all the papers. He had taken over from another lawyer, John Swift, who I and others, Tom most loudly, thought a pretty poor, out-of-depth sap. Tom was going to be different; he would use the full power of his office to sort out the railway. “We are going to shift gear from first to fourth – right now”.

Very soon National Rail Enquires was threatened with a £2m fine. Though worrying for the Association of Train Operating Companies, where I was then serving as director general, this was the best thing that could have happened. NRES changed gear and transformed itself from not-much-better-than-BR into a pretty decent, responsive information centre.

His real target though was Railtrack which found itself under remorseless challenge and threat. But did Tom go too far? Yes, definitely. Challenge turned into trench warfare between him and Gerald Corbett, the Railtrack chief executive. Though the latter acknowledge that Tom did at least do his homework – he kept a camp bed in his office for sleepovers – the time spent on this warfare became a debilitating distraction. Gerald Corbett’s problems were legion, mostly inherited, and after a while, grief from the regulator just got in the way.

Tom’s time as regulator, 1999 to 2004, spanned years of great drama: two terrible accidents, plunging punctuality – at one time only half Britain’s trains actually ran – spiralling costs, a strategy that lurched from one thing to another, Railtrack sliding into administration and, finally, the government taking back control.

I remember “hearings”, set piece confrontations between the TOCs and Railtrack. They happened often, 20 or 30 people in the room with Tom perched in the middle on his dais like some Ming Emperor clutching, to sniggers from the more juvenile amongst us, a megaphone. At one hearing 16 – yes 16! – top commercial lawyers or barristers were present.

What was happening was this: issues which were essentially management issues, and should have been resolved by management decision, were being treated as if they were legal issues. For example, was Railtrack’s programme to improve its asset knowledge adequate and being given the right priority in the right way? This is a management issue but in the railway of the time it had to be addressed by the regulator as a pseudo-legal issue. Tom was not wrong to do so, mostly good came of it – at its best, it was a sort of mediation process – but it lead to some pretty surreal situations.

I remember waves and waves of carefully written, accurate and lucid consultation documents, contract revisions, licence changes and new incentive formulae – all from his pen. In this he was a class act. Good documentation was a valuable legacy of his time.

His most lasting legacy, for which we should be deeply thankful, was the sharp increase from £10bn to £22bn in the financial settlement for the years 2001-2006. This somewhat undermined the argument that Railtack had been culpably incompetent, they simply did not have enough money, but it did put the future railway on a properly funded footing. Without it, we would not have our present railway.

In a heated and hilarious session, lecturing Gwyneth Dunwoody and her Transport Select Committee about the rule of law – she was not amused – he responded briskly, in a very Winsorish way to their criticism of this financial settlement: “It is my statutory remit and I will not be deterred by irrelevant political considerations from carrying it out”. So, push off Gwyneth, you irrelevance.

Less edifying were other arguments over the role of the regulator.

I remember the debilitating spat between Tom and Richard Bowker, the then head of the Strategic Rail Authority, over who ran the railway. Richard said he could hardly develop a rail strategy if he had to go through the regulator every time he wanted something changed on the track. To which Tom replied, in effect, “put your requirements in writing and I will consider them”.

I remember during the year-long clear up after Hatfield, Tom declining to attend the weekly ministerial progress-chasing meetings – something the minister found strange – on the grounds that it was he, the regulator, who had been appointed by parliament to oversee Railtrack, and not the minister, who had no business getting involved. So, push off minister.

And, of course, it was on this point that the denouement took place. Who runs the railway? In October 2001, Railtrack, running out of money, decided that it was the government which ran the railway, and went, not to the regulator for financial relief, but to ministers. They said no and, with court approval, put the company into administration. Job done, end of Railtrack, a new chapter begins, and a good thing too. Tom fumed in the background. “Assisted suicide,” he said, but his alternative, if they had come to him, was gruesome, futile chemotherapy – Railtrack made the right choice.

Things quietened down and in 2004, his term of office coming to an end, he stepped down and became a partner in the US law firm, White & Case. I thought he would fade away into a fee-filled lawyers’ mist till, in October 2010, the tenth anniversary of the Hatfield accident, a long article turned up in The Times arguing that the way to get efficiency into the railway was to properly privatise Network Rail and float it on the stock exchange – oh no!, please, not again. He was back. Fat fees are so dull, so last year.

What does all this amount to? A pedantic tyrant or a muscular public servant?

I would like to say that on the big issues he was right – but I can’t. On half of them, I think he was wrong. But you can form your own view; read all about it under Tom Winsor in Wikipedia. Ten pages, authentic stuff, presumably written by him.

There were really two sides to Tom.

First: a very lawyerly devotion to and faith in the law and legal processes (while a mixed blessing in the railway, possibly to be commended in police work?); and high intelligence leading sometimes to dogmatism and stubbornness.

But against this, there is mental vigour, thoroughness, common sense, a common touch, wide experience and a gift for publicity. He is not grand or highfalutin. He calls a spade a spade. He will talk to people, walk the walk, become informed. He has the virtues you would expect from a Scottish Presbyterian – I assume he is one – from Dundee, a belief in the common good and in individual effort.

He was the person the railway needed at the time.

 

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport. Click here to subscribe.