My friend John Nelson has drawn on his 50 years of experience to write an insider’s story of Britain’s railway through privatisation to the present day

 

 

Hold the front page, Keith Williams, don’t press ‘Send’ on your review just yet. There’s a new book in town, Losing Track, written by one of the most respected rail industry professionals of the last 50 years, John Nelson. He helped set the sector up for privatisation, going against his own principles but doing so diligently. Yet in the years that followed he became one of the few, true entrepreneurs.

Never has a book been more aptly titled than Losing Track which charts the helter-skelter way in which the rail industry has been mismanaged in the post-Beeching era. Nelson draws on his insights from his half-century career which included heading up British Rail’s East Coast operation and Network South East’s 12 divisions, creating open access operators and advising owning groups and government on strategy and policy.

These certainly aren’t the ramblings of a retired railwayman, nor drab conceptualising and hypothesising about industry structures. Nelson is still very active in the industry, as chairman of multi-modal transport business Flash Forward Consulting, where he is also an advisor to many of the top dogs in the sector in a variety of ways. What’s more, Losing Track is full of hair-raising anecdotes and blunt assessments of the approaches, tactics, behaviours, shenanigans and personnel of many of the key protagonists and their organisations. It’s not called Losing Track for nothing and it’s beauty is also in its chronology of events; I had indeed lost track of it all with the benefit of history, I realise just how bonkers it all was.

This literary work of art cannot fail to have resonance for those of us who worked in the industry during such a period of change.

This literary work of art cannot fail to have resonance for those of us who worked in the industry during such a period of change. Nelson makes celebrities of railway managers who may have been big to us in the insular world of our sector, but probably were non-entities to people on the outside. It’s appealing for us to see him, through his own research and anecdotes, lift the lid on their views and the roles they played in the unfolding drama that was railway privatisation and beyond.

Some of these – Adrian Shooter, Euan Cameron, Giles Fearnley, Mike Jones, to name but a few – thrived in a now bygone transport age of big personalities in a unique, unprecedented environment conducive to unlocking latent commercial and entrepreneurial flair and freedom. Many were thrust into the spotlight by their involvement in management buy-outs.

Nelson illuminates salient shortcomings in the industry at the time. The first pertains to “culture” and regarding this John brings to life the appalling disregard at Railtrack towards rail industry managers – their expertise treated with utter disdain, regarded almost as losers by those at the top. I’d forgotten that Railtrack was Gerald Corbett’s first CEO role (how did head-hunters preside over that?) and that he and his chairman, Robert Horton, made very little effort to appreciate and understand the nuances of the sector or show any regard for customers – train operators and the end customer using train services. This is never more brought to life than when Euan Cameron, then MD of Thameslink was told by Corbett: “I don’t know why we’re having this meeting. You’re too small a company to warrant much attention.”

If Cameron’s account isn’t hell-raising enough, the tale of Connex’s involvement in UK rail is equally crackers. Given two of the largest, riskiest and complex franchises – South Central and South Eastern on the back of exaggerating their expertise, it actually transpired Connex had only run a small regional line near Rennes and was soon completely out of its depth, culturally and from a competence perspective.

This was something I saw first hand as a commuter on South Eastern, talking to staff and other customers, and later as a senior manager picking up the pieces on both franchises after Connex’s removal. Industry legend Dick Fearn was given a 30% pay increase by Connex in its keenness to keep him, but they diverted all decision making to France and imported a French finance person to keep abreast of everything that was happening in the train companies. After commending Fearn for doing a “splendid job”, Connex suggested to him that he took “early retirement” – at the age of 43 – with two exiting options, one within a week or another in a fortnight. Worse still, according to Chris Green, another industry grandee, during the bidding process it became clear that one of their senior managers hadn’t even heard of Croydon.

It really is a litany of woes and missed opportunities that Nelson recounts, as well as a clash of cultures.

It really is a litany of woes and missed opportunities that Nelson recounts, as well as a clash of cultures. Bus industry personalities took over train companies and rubbed railway folk up the wrong way, or just didn’t have the pre-requisite skills and experiences to manage the complexity of the railway. There’s a hint of ruthlessness in the way that the FirstGroup of old negotiated more subsidy to prop up the struggling North West business, whilst dispensing with its experienced management team because they wouldn’t entirely concur with First’s style. It was little surprise that some of the newly appointed companies struggled, given that the whole letting of franchises was done with such haste that many of the bids were sketchy and cavalier.

Scandals aplenty are recounted, the biggest occurring on the Friday before the first franchise (London, Tilbury and Southend) was due to start on the Sunday – a passing conversation about an anomaly in which tickets from Fenchurch Street were being sold at Upminster, thereby inflating the revenues of the incoming management buy-out team and abstracting unethically from London Underground, caused a huge furore and the termination of that franchise process.

The Hatfield rail crash in 2000 was, of course, a scandal – exposing the sheer lack of railway expertise both in terms of safety and engineering capability and a dereliction of duty not just in the causes of the disaster but the operational reaction in the aftermath. It crippled train operator revenues for a significant period and separately triggered Railtrack being put into administration.

Then there are the missed opportunities – the Special Purpose Vehicles proposed by Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) chairman Sir Alastair Morton alongside long term franchises – Chiltern with its 20-year term and its partnership with Network Rail to double track, increase frequencies and open new routes, as well as parent company John Laing Group building and owning a brand new station at Warwick Parkway, was a glimpse into what might have been.

Morton’s failing health and disillusionment with government funding – “Show me the money!” he shouted to deputy prime minister John Prescott – led to him resigning and the combative Richard Bowker taking over at the SRA. But he was unable to fend off a conspiring Network Rail, which sided with the Department for Transport in a pincer movement to cause the abolition of a rail industry body which made so much sense that it is likely to be restored in a similar guise as part of the Williams Review.

John hints at a lack of experience within Morton’s organisation and he paints a picture of Prism Rail giving the SRA the runaround at its Wales and West franchise because no one at the authority could comprehend the financials at play, something I could see on a daily basis as an SRA employee.

Therein was the rub in that, at that stage of privatisation, the private sector companies were largely still emboldened, entrepreneurial, commercially savvy players with freedom within franchise agreement structures to be innovative to grow patronage and revenue. This is something Midland Mainline achieved so successfully, as Nelson pays tribute to in his scribing.

The joy of Nelson’s book is the way in which he captures the raw emotion of the time, making his book far more than just a chronological recounting, supplemented by musings from a wise old sage. We’re struck by Adrian Shooter getting a rebuke from his Chiltern Railways owning group, Deutsche Bahn, for bemoaning “When we had the Strategic Rail Authority, we frequently cursed Richard Bowker and all his works, but now we have the DfT it is a lot worse”.

Meanwhile, transport secretary Alistair Darling snaps at train operators for their temerity to suggest vertical integration – “Why you’re still going on about it, I don’t know” – whilst Stagecoach’s Sir Brian Souter describes the DfT as “deceitful and dysfunctional” in their bungled handling of their contract on South West Trains.

Meanwhile, as chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies, Go Ahead’s larger-than-life CEO, Keith Ludeman, described the SRA’s replacement of 15-year franchises with shorter term contracts as “suffused with micro-management … invoking a dull nausea and disbelief that two parties could get into such an agreement”.

In this drab era of corporate clones, where everything is a scripted press release, it’s hard to think that such outspoken views would ever get a voice.

Even just by recording what happened and refreshing our memories in the process, let alone Nelson’s pithy insight, Losing Track is the most compelling reminder that the current franchise model is broken and must not be mirrored in any new model being designed by Keith Williams and his gang

Even just by recording what happened and refreshing our memories in the process, let alone Nelson’s pithy insight, Losing Track is the most compelling reminder that the current franchise model is broken and must not be mirrored in any new model being designed by Keith Williams and his gang. There are recurrent themes – of cash being haemorrhaged and of companies handed over negligently through their own incompetence and disregard or a project management failure with Network Rail/Railtrack.

There are new owners saddled with driver and rolling stock shortages and timetable mess-ups, and that consistent theme of suppressed innovation, be it through a constraining, dulling down of the contracts and with micro-management from the DfT or a disdain towards open access exploration.

We see, for instance, Nelson (who co-founded open access operators Hull Trains and Wrexham & Shropshire) frustrated by Christopher Garnett’s paranoid reaction to the threat of Hull Trains (“smash and grab raid”) – almost to the point of distraction from his own priorities at GNER and by Network Rail’s reluctance to be motivated to unlock train paths that clearly existed.

All these themes appear to be derivative of the overall guiding mantra from Nelson which is an aversion to the separation of track and train and in particular the impact it has on constraining skill-sets. Even from the early stages of his career, which began in 1968, Nelson makes positive references to the wide span of experience he gained from operating in roles that gave the widest possible exposure into how all parts of the railway worked. The ability for peers at similar formative stages of their careers to share these experiences with each other represented  invaluable tutelage made possible by an integrated set-up which valued cross-functional learning.

VERDICT: Let’s hope, if nothing else, Keith and his team read Losing Track because it sees the many false starts and missed opportunities across this great sector exposed by one of the true stalwarts, someone who actually knows what he is talking about.

 
GET your copy! Losing Track by John Nelson is available from Amazon books or Waterstones online in paperback or hardback.