It makes sense having a strategic body overseeing the rail industry. The concept should have worked last time, but it didn’t. Why?

Established in 1999, the SRA was placed on a formal legal basis in 2001. It was abolished in 2006

In early December, it will be the 20-year anniversary of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority Awayday that I attended at Great Westminster Hall. I was a middle-ranking employee at the SSRA back in the day. I recall its inaugural chairman, Sir Alastair Morton, making an uplifting speech and then we all went into breakout groups in the afternoon. Like all of these sessions, we threatened to change the world but nothing really materialised – as is the ilk of most awaydays.

The brainchild of deputy prime minister John Prescott, the SRA was in its pomp that early December afternoon in 2000. It was in the process of being able to cast aside the ‘S’ in SSRA, as legislation was passing to let it operate properly. Without the shackles of “Shadow”, it had the opportunity to take real leadership in an industry that had almost ground to a halt following the response to the Hatfield rail disaster a few weeks earlier, with passenger numbers plummeting (sounds familiar) as a result of the widespread speed restrictions. Railtrack’s reputation was on the floor for many reasons, including its almost complete disregard of the value of the rail experience in its ranks. The opportunity for the SRA was there to be grasped.

It doesn’t feel like 20 years ago and indeed it is already 14 since the SRA was abolished – long enough ago for there to be no embarrassment over a u-turn in re-creating a public sector body responsible for setting and overseeing the strategy, policy and contract management of the railway. If the current re-structure of the industry is, as has been mooted, to create a governing body of this ilk, then it’s worth looking back in history at the lessons we can learn from last time. After all, many of the younger generation of railway professionals will have little, if any grasp of the SRA’s existence.

There was a specific emphasis on ‘Strategic’ in a way that you don’t get the impression exists currently within the Department for Transport’s remit. Strategy appears to be devolved to separate external, independent reviews – Shaw, McNulty, Williams, Brown and so on. The in-tray, in recent times at least, will have been focused on crisis management – even before Covid as many TOCs teetered on the brink. I might add that I think the DfT, under Pete Wilkinson’s leadership, has grappled with the pandemic decisively and with real teeth.

However, ‘Strategy’ was never really achieved by the SRA. Much of what it did was small scale projects on stations and the 20-year Chiltern franchise. Its infrastructure partnership between Network Rail, M40 Trains and John Laing to deliver Warwick Parkway station and the Evergreen “double tracking” project was as good as it got. Sir Alastair Morton’s ambitious project to create ‘Special Purpose Vehicles’ to genuinely transform stations from municipal, faceless facilities into thriving, welcoming community hubs in partnership with the private sector, never got off the drawing board.

It never really struck me that the SRA was blessed with the cutting-edge talent of the industry

There were some exceptions, of course, but it never really struck me that the SRA was blessed with the cutting-edge talent of the industry. Part of the problem was the perennial issue of it being unable to pay the salaries on offer in TOCs and those with lesser calibre tended, back then, to go to SRA or Railtrack/Network Rail. Why would a David Franks, Keith Ludeman, Richard Brown, Chris Garnett or Adrian Shooter, for instance, work for the SRA when they could earn three times as much and probably have a clearer career path with opportunities in abundance in their private transport owning groups? With the new concession-type contracts in the future, less likely to deliver big money, the balance could be different now.

It was called the Strategic Rail Authority, but the gag was that it would be more appropriate to leave the ‘S’ out – it wasn’t resplendent with the biggest strategic brains of industry, let alone rail. More often than not, the “strategy arm” consisted of former BR operational managers who were turning their hand to strategy rather than specialists in this field, apart from the excellent Richard Davies. Fairly soon, the SRA was criticised for its long-awaited strategic plan consisting of just a long, arbitrary list of possible upgrades, put together without any intended end, overall strategy and bereft of any ringfenced spend. Many joked that the ‘A’ in SRA should disappear too.

I wouldn’t have described myself as necessarily having the track record and credentials to be doing some of the tasks I did at the SRA. I joined during its transition from the very small, if not cosy, OPRAF (Office of Passenger Rail Franchising) to the SRA and I found myself without a clear remit and job description but soon navigated a gap that existed in terms of there not being plans and processes for managing franchises in their final 12 months, and a roadmap for the split and merger of TOCs to create the second round of franchising. So, as a lone SRA employee, I was paired up with very distinguished consultants, including current Flash Forward Consulting, chair John Nelson to address these issues and jolly great fun and riveting the task was.

There was a hint of arrogance, disdain and suspicion towards the train operators and their owning groups

The culture of the organisation was initially collegiate and very consensual – a hallmark of the influence of the hugely likeable and talented commercial director Nick Newton and CEO Mike Grant. However, there was a hint of arrogance, disdain and suspicion towards the train operators and their owning groups. I wondered whether this was from a position of envy and insecurity from those in the SRA – bureaucrats facing off with the private sector fat cats, with their charisma and entrepreneurial flair (these were the days when such traits were at the heart of TOC MD role profiles). The fact, though, that very quickly the SRA grew in size and scale didn’t help, middle-ranking, ex-BR managers found themselves given assistant director and director positions (which were prized, as well as few and far between in the civil service) and some enjoyed trying to flex their muscles. In truth, most of the heavyweight operators were far more experienced and enjoyed giving them the run around. Some of the time, they felt it was a game seeing how far they could tie them up in knots.

I did not share this suspicion towards the TOCs. I’m not ever convinced it was with any foundation and my sympathies lay with the operators – I for one was eying up their side of the fence as my future career – where life seemed far more fun and dynamic. The problem is that once such a cultural malaise festers unchecked, it became a pernicious influence and it was soon fashionable for the whole organisation to turn up their noses at the TOCs, as though they could do better themselves, when really, they most certainly couldn’t.

Once started this negative mindset started growing it was hard to prune it back when Mike Grant was swiftly removed after Richard Bowker took over as chair and decided that he could combine the role of chair and CEO. At 35, it’s incredible to think how young Bowker was to take on a role of such enormity for the industry and his style was not quite combative, but it differed to that which was common in civil service circles. It was less consensual than had previously been experienced by the industry with SRA and OPRAF. As the organisation grew in numbers – up to 400 – the contempt, in some circles, it held towards the operators was clear. Two years after I left the SRA, I was heading up the Stansted Express business and the sessions I had with one particular individual in the management chain beggared belief in terms of his adversarial approach. It was laughable given the complete inexperience and limitations of this person thrust into a position of so-called authority.

Inevitably, the SRA could not last. Funding for the railway was being cut back and relations between the SRA and DfT soured well before Bowker arrived. Sir Alastair Morton had complained to the Transport Select Committee that “almost every breath we draw has to be cleared by ministers”. The SRA stated in 2000 that it would complete its franchise replacement process across 18 franchises that had short terms, but only three got over the line and only one of them (Chiltern) saw out anywhere near its full intended term. The SRA was derided for producing its franchise replacement guide only after the first round had gone through the pre-qualification stage!

Relationships didn’t improve under Bowker and with transport secretary Alastair Darling becoming increasingly concerned about the SRA spending money, he proposed greater control over the authority – a precursor to its eventual abolition. In its obituary, critics suggested an older and more experienced Richard Bowker would not have been given the run-around by government, but then again, Morton, who had presided over the creation of the Channel Tunnel and was one of the most revered businessmen of his time, fared no better. Right now, the DfT’s Peter Wilkinson must be having to fend off far more awkward questions from the Treasury than the SRA ever faced – that there’s no sense of any fall-out is testimony to the job he is doing.

By the mid noughties, the SRA, set up when the Labour government’s confidence in the management of the privatised railway was one of despair, had lost any short-lived honeymoon aura as the only respected authority in a beleaguered industry

By the mid noughties, the SRA, set up when the Labour government’s confidence in the management of the privatised railway was one of despair, had lost any short-lived honeymoon aura as the only respected authority in a beleaguered industry. The ORR was the “listened to” voice in government and beyond and so too Network Rail, now that Railtrack and its discredited leadership team had disappeared. Network Rail was a more credible force, whilst the ORR, under the highly opinionated but very well regarded and clever Tom Winsor, was a force to be reckoned with. The SRA was not quite derided, but certainly not perceived highly. There was no love lost whatsoever between the strong willed and outspoken Bowker and Winsor and sources suggested that the relationship was rancorous.

With government’s plans for greater control becoming very clear, Bowker resigned in protest and his exit masked some of the achievements that had been delivered under his stewardship. These included a solution to power supply issues in the Southern Region, the West Coast upgrade and removing the under-performing Connex from its South Eastern franchise, replacing it with a much more successful SRA-led management team.
With there being some talk of an equivalent Strategic Rail Authority in the future, it’s important that lessons are learned from the past. From a leadership perspective, it needs to have a really credible, well respected rail industry figure at the helm, even if civil service pay restraints are broken for the senior management team per se. Those in charge need to work more scrupulously than perhaps Morton and Bowker did at the relationship with government, whilst also standing up to them in a way that commands respect rather than acrimony. And it simply must be more trusting and collaborative in its relationship with the TOCs. It needs also to invest in proper strategic thinkers and set out its plan early on.

In my view, it makes sense having a strategic body overseeing the rail industry. The concept should have worked last time – an organisation that understood the railway more intimately than the DfT and one which carried the dual role of strategy and also governance. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that it only failed because there was a clash of big personalities rather than the model being necessarily flawed. .

This article appears inside the issue 234 of Passenger Transport.

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