Return to Archive -by date - by topic - 2001
As the shambles on the tracks continues the focus of attention within the media and politicians is turning to how the railway should be reorganised if it is to recover its equilibrium. Alas, this grand strategy can only be a displacement activity. It misses the point that you can't reorganise until you have a stable organisation on which to work.
Stability is, of course, relative and depends on the position of the centre of gravity of an object – or an organisation. In an industry the centre of gravity is determined by the location of its managerial and technical expertise.
Those children's dolls with a rounded base, which when you push them over bob back to the vertical, are a simple paradigm for a resilient organisation. When the railway, for example, is perturbed by events, whether an accident, flooding or technical problems, provided the centre of gravity is in the right place it should ride with the blow and recover rapidly. But it can do this only if the managerial centre of gravity is down at the operational level.
And that was what used to happen. But while the Conservatives did a brilliant job in making rail privatisation irreversible, the process did have the undesirable side effect of creating a fatally flawed structure. Just how flawed even we may not have realised at the time, but to bring a world class railway to its knees in just over five years was no mean achievement for John MacGregor and his civil servants.
What privatisation did was effectively raise the centre of gravity of the industry towards the board room. Many of the heavyweight managers either left in disgust or were let go on the false premise that the new private sector owners would put in new people to do a better job.
Of those who stayed, the most competent and driven stayed in the TOCs because running a railway was what they liked doing. Those who wanted something different but demanding went to work for OPRAF, now the Strategic Rail Authority, and those seeking a quiet life chose Railtrack.
In what had been the Chief Civil Engineer's Department, two swathes of cost cutting, first by British Rail in preparation for sale, then by the new owners in a vain attempt to meet Railtrack's unrealistic cost expectations cut a swathe through the middle managers whose presence kept the centre of gravity low.
On the East Coast Main Line for example, two track maintenance managers, one for the Southern end based at Doncaster the other for the north at Newcastle had been replaced by a single manager. Thus the centre of gravity rose a little more.
Railtrack, saw itself reflected in the City's mirror as a money machine and believed that the railway would engineer and run itself just as it had always done.
So now, while political attention focuses on the Railtrack board, our concern lies in the denuded executive and management ranks because when things go wrong it is executives and managers who do the dirty work on the ground and achieve exceptional results from ordinary people – or used to. Since Hatfield we have had our ears bashed by any number of managers appalled at the time taken to reopen the track through accident sites.
Thus, to buy the stability needed to repair the faults in the current railway structure the corporate centre of gravity at Railtrack has to be lowered – and fast. But how?
Quite simply, the grey tigers, all those managers now coasting along in consultancies or pruning the roses or travelling the world on their retirement handouts have to be lured back to run the railway. Railtrack has reordered its priorities by transferring Richard Middleton and Andrew McNaughton back to real jobs as Technical Director and Chief Engineer respectively. Now they need to be joined by a grim booted black macintoshed old-school no nonsense operator and a heavy duty civil engineering manager able to forge links with contractors.
Next McNaughton needs to empire build fast, setting up chief engineers in each zone, encouraged and backed to go out and make things happen – including a duty to walk all their track once a year. The nonsense of engineers reporting to contract managers must stop.
Quite simply, it is time to take back the railway, which means encouraging the defectors and dispossessed to return. True it is a dysfunctional railway structured to implode, but there is a chance that bloody minded professional railwaymen and women could make it work until remedial action can be taken.
Meanwhile distractions must stop, and that includes franchise renewal, until the SRA knows what it wants, and the Regulator's search & destroy sweeps through the contractual jungle. For the next year the whole industry should get on with trying to run a railway.