British Rail has long been the public's favourite Aunt Sally. Its new chairman is determined to change all of that. Could he be just the right person at the right time? Philip Beresford reports.
It is 5.15 pm on a cold Friday night at London's Charing Cross station. Every two minutes a 30-year-old electric train packed with long-suffering Kent commuters trundles out of one of the six platforms of what is the world's most intensive rail operation. British Rail's managers are actually able to coax 31 trains an hour into Charing Cross, one more than the theoretical capacity and way above even the intensity of service offered by those much vaunted rail operators, the French.
Stewart Palmer, the local area manager, is lucky to operate a near perfect service about once a fortnight. But then no other railway tries to pack as much into one station as BR does into Charing Cross. "If we had a French railwayman here he'd faint. If he was doing the same thing he'd want 15 platforms, not six," says Palmer with a dismissive air.
A 20-year railway veteran ("I've done everything from Carlisle to Gloucester before coming here"), he is used to working to the limits, which could be said for BR and all of its 123,000 employees. This has its downside. In the case of Charing Cross it means that any slight hiccup can bring instant chaos to the rush hour, and lead to thousands of angry commuters packing the station concourse. But that is the price that BR pays for its limited access to public funds. By comparison with other European railways, BR is a paragon of financial virtue, taking just 0.14% of the gross national product, against a European average of 0.72%.
BR managers running its five business sectors - InterCity, Network SouthEast, Regional, Freight and Parcels - have shown a hard-nosed approach that has paid spectacular dividends in the past five years. The Passenger Service Obligation, BR's grant from the Treasury, was more than halved from £1,200 million in 1983 to £500 million in 1989/90. By 1992/93 it is forecast to fall to £345 million.
Critics of BR's robust commercialism reckon that the cuts in government grants are leading to deteriorating services. John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, says that no government - Labour or Tory - has ever put enough money into BR. As a result British fares are much higher than in Europe to help keep the whole show on the rails. In the past 10 years fares have risen some 24% ahead of inflation in real terms. After one particularly steep increase The Daily Telegraph carried, with some justification, an appropriate cartoon showing a Securicor van pulling up outside a commuter's home with the wife inside telling her husband: "Darling, your season ticket has arrived."
Overcrowding for many commuters in Kent and Essex is a way of life, with some trains carrying 150% of their capacity. Passenger watchdog bodies complain daily about the conditions and report record numbers of complaints from the public. Wags in Kent wonder how long it will be before BR employs, like the Japanese, white-gloved railway staff to push commuters onto already bulging trains. Consumers' Association even went as far as threatening BR with legal action on behalf of passengers suffering poor service.
BR, it would seem, remains the British public's favourite Aunt Sally. But its new chairman, Sir Robert Reid, is determined to deflect the barbs, and he may just be in the right position at the right time to do so.
This 56-year-old Scot will be no pushover for Government ministers or critics. A former Shell UK chairman and chief executive, he showed his mettle in carrying through some pretty hefty redundancy programmes in the early '80s, and more recently in handling a serious oil spillage in the Mersey. He has already formed a good working relationship with John Welsby, his chief executive. Once a senior Department of Transport official, Welsby provides the analytical mind and the intimate knowledge of Whitehall, while Sir Robert is the man manager to motivate the workforce.
With this new management team, neutral commentators think that BR's prospects for the next decade have rarely been better. Looking to the year 2000, the P-E International management consultancy recently concluded that the "UK rail network will be greatly improved with a big expansion of vehicle-carrying trains between major centres ... Rail will be the UK's most successful company in 1999."
Increasing congestion on the roads (with road traffic predicted to grow by anything from 85 to 142% by the year 2015) and an increasing tilt in Government and public thinking in favour of "green" alternatives such as rail should all play into BR's hands. In 1993 Sir Robert can also look forward to the opening of the Channel tunnel, which should be a huge boost to BR's passenger and freight businesses.
But the immediate priority is to ride out the recession which has hit BR's leisure market, particularly off-peak travel into London. Welsby thinks that it will take until the second half of this year to see some relief.