In my opinion: Chartered Management Institute

Chartered Management Institute companion Richard Bowker, chairman and CEO of the Strategic Rail Authority, argues for cultural integration

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Across the rail industry we need one kind of change more than any other: cultural change. The first thing that needs to be integrated across the railway is our culture, which includes our attitude, our belief, our values and our goals. Without cultural integration, any structural change will be a waste of time.

So what does cultural integration mean? Well, it means an end to a default culture of blame, an end to territorialism, and an end to passing the parcel of responsibility.

We all have rights and responsibilities. Every time we exercise a right, we need to make sure that we understand what impact it has on our responsibilities. The right to disagree in public is tangible enough, but what of our responsibility to investors, customers and our colleagues?

How are those responsibilities discharged by a running commentary on the actions of others with whom we might disagree but with whom we have ultimate common cause?

The answer is simple: they are not. This railway is a public-private partnership - a public service that is publicly specified and privately delivered. The role of the private sector is vital to the future of Britain's railway. Only the most unreconstructed would disagree. But the role of the private sector is in delivery. The rights of the private sector need to be safeguarded and its responsibilities need to be made unambiguous.

The biggest single safeguard of private-sector confidence is a railway that functions for its customers and its investors; a railway that works properly, that is being properly delivered. That is what instils confidence in the private sector and what delivers the collective actions of an industry working together.

There are, of course, many more people with rights than there are with responsibilities. Many of us have the latter, though we are often criticised by those who don't. That's fine; that's life. We should show that our responsibilities are what drive us. Collective responsibility is what underpins the railway.

When it comes to delivering the service, how can you separate the responsibilities of a signaller from those of a driver? Or those of an operator from those of a rolling-stock leasing company? Yet too often we seem to. And it makes us a lesser industry.

There are no isolated decisions in the railway; no circuit-breaker between the work of a planner and its impact on a contractor. But too often the industry acts as though there is. Neither is there a gap between the way in which we conduct ourselves and the faith our investors have in us - public or private; but again, too often, we act as if there is.

As I know only too well, there are lonely decisions but there are no isolated ones. There is a oneness to the railway that is unique. That oneness is the holy grail of successful delivery, irrespective of how many bits are involved and, as I have mentioned, no amount of structural change will compensate for a lack of that oneness - it's got to come from within us.

When there is a problem on the railway - as every industry of such complexity and size is bound to have - we seem to have the ability to magnify it, to amplify it for the convenience and advantage of critics, rather than fixing it for the benefit of customers.

The new trains programme on the Southern Region is a fine example of chaos in retreat. There was not a plan, but there is now; there was no end point, but now there's an objective and process. There wasn't a meaningful budget, there is now. It is a story of an industry working together to fix a problem - admittedly one created by our predecessors. But fixing it we are. There is much to do, but it is getting fixed.

If we are to put this right, the rail industry must embrace change, together.

Embracing change is indistinguishable from driving change. Someone recently accused me of having a belligerent tone when talking about those who want change and those who don't. I find that strange. Anyone who thinks we have been doing everything right is seriously mistaken.

The current review of the structure of the rail industry - announced by the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, in January - is a real review. It is an opportunity to consolidate strengths and to address weaknesses.

The existing structure is too complicated and too unwieldy, with insufficient clarity and stability for customers and investors. These two groups are at the very heart of the railway and, together with taxpayers, should be the unrelenting focus of all of us in the industry. We owe them commitment, value and delivery.

The industry will have only itself to blame if it doesn't deliver.

Cultural change is as vital as structural change. The two have got to go hand in hand. That is why I have made a radical submission to the transport secretary's review of the rail industry. I want to simplify the structure of the industry and in doing so enable a new delivery-focused culture to take root. It can be done. It must be done.


Richard Bowker took over as chairman and chief executive of the SRA in December 2001. He joined London Underground as a graduate finance trainee in 1989, before qualifying as a chartered management accountant.

He moved to financial consultancy Babcock & Brown and was seconded to Virgin Rail Group. From September 2000 until joining the SRA, he was commercial director for the Virgin Group, and co-chairman of the Virgin Rail Group.

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