Return to Archive -by date - by topic - 2001
In Modern Railways four decades as an informed observer of the professional railway scene our industry has been dogged by the general perception, from those with no experience, that railways are easy – managerially and technically.
In the 1960s, for example, the United States aerospace industry wanted some light relief from putting a man on the moon and finding ever more ingenious ways to flatten Viet Nam and adopted ground transport. Acronyms proliferated, Mag-Lev, TACV, the Stephensonian railway became duorail (as opposed to monorail). An helicopter builder beat off the established passenger vehicle companies to win a major contract – it didn't work. At the end of the experiment, the established builders had gone out of business to the benefit of Canadian, European and Far East factories.
In the 1970s it was our turn. The newcomers at the recently established Railway Technicial Centre at Derby openly despised the railway engineers and disdained their archaic technology. The all-singing, all-tilting Advanced Passenger Train was the spearhead of the new enlightenment, but it was IC125, another empirical engineering solution, that saved the InterCity business – thanks in part to the scientific understanding of suspension developed by BR Research.
Come the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher approached it from the other direction when she told the BR Board ‘If you were any good you wouldn't be here'. And when we arrived at the 1990s a tenet of privatisations was that the inward looking state railway would be transformed by an influx of private sector management talent.
But before that we had another bout of techno-freakery when consultant's untrammelled by practical experience persuaded Railtrack, similarly untrammelled, that you could pull down a digital radio system and some computers off the shelf and have instant moving block signalling. Signal engineers with decades of experience who pointed out that life wasn't like that and how did you ensure vital safety or restart in manual, were clearly terminally in-bred and ripe for the dustbin of railway history.
And the lesson was learned again. Which brings us to the abrupt departure of Railtrack's Chief Operating Officer, Jonson Cox, the highest profile newcomer to the privatised industry who failed to hack it in railway management.
In some quarters Cox's sacking was seen as the ‘revenge of the old railwaymen'. Certainly Cox had made himself deeply unpopular in the Railtrack Zones, both by his abrasive manner – which the train operating companies dealing with the Zones thought was the way to go – and by his back to the future management structure which would have made 18 Area Delivery Groups the focus of the day to day railway.
Old Railway readers will see this as a return to old BR's Divisions, which would probably have been worse than the current Zones which replicate BR's Regional structure that the two Bob Reids fought so hard to replace with integrated businesses.
But the real reason for his going was poor operating performance. As Railtrack Chairman put it, ‘We said to him it was not working. Therefore we told him to leave'.
But why wasn't it working? Cox came from a privatised utility – a water company – with the same 24/7 service provision as the railways. And you might expect other utilities to be a natural catchment area for Railtrack's recruiters. But in Railways semantics are critical. Cox's job title Chief Operating Officer is a well defined job in British and American business. But it has nothing to do with the profession of Railway Operator where Cox was being judged.
But before Cox, Zone Directors had been recruited from utilities and all failed to cope. Despite this lesson being reinforced Railtrack has now appointed a 16 year veteran from the electrical supply industry to run North West Zone. This time, the new man will be given a three month induction course in railway operation and safety cases before taking over. And here, we believe lies the crux of the problem.
Railways may seem to do the same thing as utilities, but there is a huge difference between pumping water and gas through pipes or electrons down wires and carrying people and goods in real time on your infrastructure. Successful railway operation at the highest level requires an immediate tactical grasp combined with a panoramic appreciation of the strategically possible.
Not to mince words, a railway operator has to be able to recognise bullshit instantly, whether it is an over-optimistic schedule for clearing up a derailment, a rose tinted view of new technology or a timetable short on recovery time. And he, or she, will have to show grace under pressure when managing emergencies. One reason why Great Heck was cleared up so relatively quickly was that the Zone Director was the ‘governor' on site, imposing Railtrack's authority where necessary, balancing the needs to reopen the line with those of the investigations from police and HMRI.
A railway manager has always needed this varied toolkit of skills and a railway career has provided it. Think how many of the great managers, past and present, joined direct from school or college, starting at the sharp end and working up to the top, in the process gaining experience of passenger and freight traffic, traction and rolling stock, track and structures, major projects, and coping with incidents from cows on the line to serious accidents. Not just gaining experience but seeing how senior managers handled such events and learning how to behave as a railway manager when people under stress look to you for guidance and leadership.
Which is where we return to Jonson Cox and the other newcomers. Not only haven't they assembled a railway manager's mental toolkit – although they may have some very useful new tools of their own because railways can always learn – but the organisation they joined had been stripped of managers who could have passed on railway experience. In the decade since privatisation the railway has lost that generation of managers, engineers and operators in their 50s who would have been at the height of their powers – but decided to retire early or go into consultancy.
Even worse is the situation, highlighted at a recent seminar on recruitment, training and retention organised by the Railway Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, where a generation of graduate recruitment has also gone missing. There are several problems here. First, few companies in the fragmented privatised railway are big enough to provide the breadth of experience young graduates need. The franchises, in particular are too small and too short term to recruit and the train operating companies are only just starting to approach the subject.
There are very few big players. The Rolling Stock Companies are now recruiting, mainly engineers, and are seeking ways of broadening their experience in depots and factories. Railtrack began this year looking to recruit 30 graduate trainees. Given the industry's woes it is not surprising that only 15 have been signed up and a new trawl has been launched.
While much emphasis has been placed on railway research, a bigger threat to the future of the industry is the lack of investment in human resources. With two missing generations, the managers and engineers of the future and the intake of the 1960s who would have passed on their experience, formal career development for the high flyers in the industry is essential.
It seems unlikely that this can be provided by individual companies. Time, perhaps, for the SRA to levy the industry to fund, as a start, a new Railway Staff College .