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Mike Mitchell was the one person no one tipped for the new post of Director General Rail at the DfT.
Less than 24 hours before the Department for Transport announced the team to run its new Rail Directorate, delegates at a high level industry meeting were still tipping either Ian Brown, Transport for London , or Nicola Shaw, SRA, for the post of Director General. Others who had been in the frame at one time or another included Richard Brown, of National Express, and Neil Scales of Mersey .
When, on 25 February, DfT revealed that the new DG was Dr Mike Mitchell of First Group, the reaction was one of surprise and shock. No one had seen it coming, but everyone knew that the appointment confirms a post election cost cutting regime .
As one Informed Source put it, ‘If they are looking for a dour personality to close lines and reduce costs without a thought as to the social implications, they have got the right person'. That said, Mitchell's past record has attracted some urban myths. Take the collapse of North Western Trains which First Group acquired when it bought out the Great Western Management Buy Out team.
Myth has it that Dr Mitchell caused the collapse by cutting back footplate staff. In fact FirstGroup took control in March 1998 and it emerged that the financial situation at NWT was ‘serious' in June.
Early in August, the shortages of drivers became so severe that services on the Oldham Loop were withdrawn for five days, putting NWT in breach of its franchise agreement. But Mitchell was not appointed Acting Managing Director until August 19, when he was moved across from North West Divisional Director of First's bus business as a fire fighting exercise.
Subsequently he became Managing Director of the First Group's new Rail Division combining the role with MD of First Great Western. Promotion to UK Chief Operating Officer, responsible for First's bus and rail divisions followed. He is currently Business Development Director, but had already announced that he would be taking early retirement.
Originally a railwayman, Mike Mitchell started as a British Rail management trainee in 1970. When he left in 1986 he was Current Performance Officer in Scottish Region.
Dr Mitchell's appointment must be seen alongside the new functional heads in his new Rail Group. And the key player here is plain speaking career civil servant Mark Lambirth
He keeps his existing responsibilities but with a small, yet significant, twist in the job title. Currently he is responsible for ‘strategy and resources'; the new job title is Director Strategy and Finance.
Mark Lambirth was one of the DfT officials badly scarred by the Interim Review debacle. He has been determined that the Railways Bill should prevent a recurrence of the ‘radio silence' which gave the Regulator unfettered access to the Treasury's coffers.
With the Secretary of State now ‘required' to specify both the level of service and the funding available, the Director Strategy & Finance will be Mike Mitchell's, Waste-Finder General in the Periodic Review process which starts later this year.
Completing DfT's three horsemen of the apocalypse is Richard Horton, Dr Mitchell's Head of Rail Procurement. His main task will be franchising.
Richard was a member of the Bowker Brat Pack of 30 somethings at SRA, the two having worked together on the Virgin Rail franchises, including traction and rolling stock procurement. At SRA he is currently Director Franchise Replacement & Rolling Stock.
He has a fun time ahead, not least on the renegotiation of the Virgin West Coast franchise which he helped set up. But he will also be central to developing the service specification to be determined by the Secretary of State for the next Periodic Review. This should suit his perceived penchant for micro-management of franchises through highly detailed Key Performance Indicators.
All you can say bout the other heads of functions in the Rail Group is that they are outstandingly average. Director of Rail Service Delivery in the Rail Group is Gary Backler, currently SRA's Director Franchising North and LNE. Head of Customer and Stakeholder Relations is Peter McCarthy who was the DfT official responsible for the 1993 Railways Bill. Graham Dalton, SRA's Director Project Implementation becomes Director of Rail Projects. However, the triumvirate should provide plenty for this column to write about.
One post, as yet unfilled, is Director of Technical Professional. His or her job will be to provide DfT officials with parity of expertise when negotiating with the railway industry, and especially Network Rail. Modest as ever, I await my country's call.
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