With our industry transitioning back to a more centralised set-up, George Muir’s book on Sir Robert Reid is essential reading

Sir Robert Reid

‘There’s just not the characters left in the game anymore’ is a phrase oft-used to describe a less interesting sporting landscape and it’s a comment that could be levied about the rail sector. You see far fewer influential big personalities today. The sector is still fragmented and each role has less accountability and scale than in previous eras; and a stranglehold the Department for Transport has on decision making and spend in these post-Covid times.

The demise of ‘characters’ really feels palpable on reading George Muir’s excellent book, Bob Reid’s Railway Revolution, which charts the life, times and impact of British Rail’s CEO from 1980 and then chairman between 1983 and 1990.

Born in Sevenoaks, scholared at Oxford University, Reid was a member of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment and was captured in Libya in 1941, becoming a prisoner of war, in Italy and Germany before joining the railway (LNER) aged 26 in 1947. Rising up the ladder at a modest pace, from traffic apprentice, through to head of the rates and freight development in the divisional goods manager’s office in Leeds, and after jobs in Glasgow, he became deputy general manager at York. Then, the big jump, general manager Southern Region, and at 59 he was the chief executive of British Rail.

George Muir’s incredibly detailed study of Reid is captivating by the couching of his analysis within the wider social and economic landscape which was, looking back, tumultuous and certainly worthy of reflection by comparison to today. He charts the early years of nationalisation in which swathes of the network – the branch lines and commuter services – were grossly unprofitable and only really InterCity and train-load freight threatened to stack up financially, and where ineffective management reigned. As Reid’s career progressed, it was against a backdrop of the closures conspired by Beeching, followed by the emergence of modern management concepts, but progress stalled. And then, as Muir describes it, during the tenures of Peter Parker and then Reid in the 80s, there was “a revolution in thinking”.

Reflecting on Reid is prescient as we now move towards a not entirely dissimilar centralised and increasingly nationalised set-up.

Sapped of clout, shorn of the ability to be entrepreneurial and genuinely innovative, today’s leaders are credible but don’t have the encouragement or stage to have the presence and commanding influence that made Reid the man he was

He was a heavyweight individual, strong-willed, prone to picking arguments to deliberately make a point to wider audiences (then apologising afterwards), not huge on detail but big on preparation. He also cared deeply about the railway and public service. Reid also had incredible presence and gravitas. Talking to many within the industry currently, decision making has never been slower and spans of authority so tight that many senior leaders are paralysed and their creative juices extinguished. Sapped of clout, shorn of the ability to be entrepreneurial and genuinely innovative, today’s leaders are credible but don’t have the encouragement or stage to have the presence and commanding influence that made Reid the man he was.

Reid’s achievements should not be underestimated. Sectorisation was created, bringing with it clarity of responsibility and accountability, never seen since, with each region a fully integrated profit centre. It was created and implemented in just over two years and general managers had the autonomy to design and implement the structure within their sector that they thought best served the market. Reid presided over a 50% reduction in public subsidy in the seven years to his departure in 1990, a turnround on InterCity from a £200m loss to £57m profit, reduced losses on Network South East before grant by 50% and achieved unprecedented financial performance on freight, alongside doubling of parcels revenue at Red Star. Productivity rose with ‘train miles per member of staff’ up 26% and ‘per crew member’ by 33%, with operating expenses per mile down 14%.

Under his watch, Reid initiated the Networker project which led to the wholesale replacement of slam-door stock across the majority of the railway within three years, albeit these were not totally extinct until the mid-noughties. He also created and delivered the Network South East brand – a proposition that had the biggest and most visible impact on customers, certainly in my lifetime. These successes should not be underestimated in terms of scale, size and their pace of implementation, nor should his achievement of introducing a focus on product and customer service, notwithstanding that this might not sound revolutionary in our era, where rhetoric around ‘customer’ dominates. This was big stuff back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the ‘service sector’ was an anathema concept in life more generally, let alone the railways.

Reid’s achievements are worth even more, if we consider the context within which he had to manage.

Reid’s achievements are worth even more, if we consider the context within which he had to manage. Trade union activism was at its peak in rail. Disputes between 1981 and 1982, followed a loss of £77m in 1980 and £174m two years later. The railway could have been the battleground for wider militancy which would manifest itself in the violent miners’ strike of 1984. That it escaped being caught in the crossfire of this dispute was an achievement of Reid’s in itself. The guards’ strike of 1985 was relatively well contained within the context of a nation which, as Muir reports, was widely seen to be on the verge of civil war. From industrial disputes to football hooliganism, inner city riots on a scale never seen before, through to sectarian violence, which, in the case of the IRA’s mainland campaigns habitually disrupted the railway, this was a country in the throes of deep malaise and conflict. Although the economic recession gave way by the late 1980s to greater prosperity, the Poll Tax riots in the year of Reid’s retirement, were a bloody climax to an era of dispute and hostility.

Talking to those who worked under Reid’s tenure, there is a sense that it was a good time to be working on the railway, notwithstanding some of the challenges. Certainly, household names, in terms of the history of the railway, were spawned – John Nelson, Chris Green, Chris Stokes, Peter Field, Cyril Bleasdale, Richard Golson, to name but a few. These individuals benefited from working for a single organisation, integrated and accountable for all aspects of the railway, with strong, clear leadership, clarity around structure, with the freedom to make market-led decisions affecting their area of responsibility. In this way, the creation of Great British Railways should offer some comfort that some of these benefits enjoyed by those under Reid may return.

These individuals who benefited from Reid’s tutelage and leadership might not be household names, but they are well known to many in the industry and they did leave their mark across generations.

Who might we be looking back on in the future? Part of the problem is that those who we might consider as big in the sector – the TOC and Network Rail regional managing directors are important, but the span of their control is a fraction of what those working under Reid had in an integrated set-up. At least those in charge of regions at Network Rail feel that the new structure will make them ‘front and centre’. But the poor TOC managing directors have been reduced almost to departmental or depot managers and they are talked down to by others in the industry as though they are peripheral. They are the innovators, the customer-focused entrepreneurs and yet they can only dream of being given the recognition and respect that Reid and his team enjoyed.

Muir’s book is far from borne of nostalgic reverie and is very objective, despite his clear fascination with the finer detail of Reid’s roots and career.

Muir’s book is far from borne of nostalgic reverie and is very objective, despite his clear fascination with the finer detail of Reid’s roots and career. After all, Muir was a bit of a ‘Johnny come-lately’ in the rail industry. An apprentice engineer in whaling ships he also spent 30 years at Morgan Grenfell. He didn’t join the sector until well into his 50s as managing director of the newly privatised Connex South Eastern, before becoming Director General of Association of Train Operating Companies a couple of years later. George admits he had no real qualifications for the role at Connex.

Unlike others from that era, Muir doesn’t, as I feared he might, airbrush or canter over the poor safety record during Reid’s tenure – a reason why I struggle to look back on that period as one which should be lionised. “Bob’s management saw no improvement in safety … the accident rate was five times higher than it is today,” remarks Muir. I recall one mishap after another, minor collisions or derailments, through to tragic deaths of track workers (16 in 1987/88) and then, of course, the major fatalities at Clapham and Purley in the space of four months in 1988/9. One such crash not many months after Reid had left was at Cannon Street. I was a passenger and this was, in my view, the denouement of 15 years of substandard and shoddy approaches to health and safety, including a drink culture that was well known to those in the industry and even revered by many. That this was a period of transition between old and new technology, not just in rail but elsewhere, was no excuse for the negligence in terms of safety culture and practices, which the disaster at Clapham laid bare to all.

It was indeed another world back then and I wonder what Reid would make of the fragmented railway that has prevailed since his death, which sadly came just two years after his retirement. How he would have recoiled at the dilution of individual responsibility or of the disagreements around delay attribution, or of the railway’s post-Hatfield approach to speed restrictions that brought the industry to its knees, or of a Railtrack top team with little, if any railway experience. I bet Bob Reid would wince at the frequency of today’s self-congratulatory awards nights and how curious he would be to hear all this talk around ‘collaboration’ – I imagine he’d be saying ‘just get on and do it’ and take for granted that everyone would be working together for the greater good.

Muir’s book really is essential reading, not just from a rail perspective but as an account of a tempestuous period in wider UK society and in the context of our transitioning back to a more centralised industry set-up – an era when real characters may just be encouraged to emerge and flourish. We shall see.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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