rail 509: Mitchell in charge: the axeman cometh to Marsham Street

Mike Mitchell’s appointment as rail director general has raised eyebrows among those who know him as a cost-cutter rather than a motivational leader, observes CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

I’m afraid that readers of this column are going to have to get used to hearing a lot more about the goings on at the Department for Transport. They are our new rulers and therefore we must examine what they are up to as closely as possible.

As I suggested in my last column, this is going to be more difficult than keeping up with, say, the Strategic Rail Authority because government departments are not exactly used to being open about their plans and intentions. Therefore, we will all have to become expert Marsham Street watchers, picking up on the odd nod and wink, rather like Peking (as it then was) correspondents used to do in the bad old days when China was actually a Communist country.

Now one hell of a big wink was sent out to the industry by the appointment of Mike Mitchell as rail director general, effectively the new man in charge of the railways. This post, according to the job specification, was supposed to go to someone who would lead the industry with vision and develop a strategic approach.

Instead, we have Mike Mitchell. He is not a man whom even his best friends – and some of his allies have been in touch, thank you – would describe as an inspirational leader. Quite the opposite. He is seen as a competent manager, with a fearsome reputation for costcutting and making people redundant. He worked for British Rail for 16 years and then found himself running various bus services. He was at the time of his appointment, according to insiders, the gopher for Moir Lockhead, FirstGroup’s chief executive, ready to do his bidding.

I have only met Mitchell a couple of times, and he made little impression because he is shy and very wary of the press. But certainly, he did not appear to be someone who was going to set the world alight. He has, according to some other less kind sources, left a trail of rather depleted companies behind him.

Certainly, FirstGroup’s Manchester bus operation, which Mitchell ran a few years ago, has long had a particularly bad reputation for poor service, with Graham Stringer, a Manchester MP, even putting down a parliamentary motion a couple of years ago to criticise the company. But how much of that can be laid at the door of Mitchell is, of course, unclear and he is not guilty of another accusation – that he caused the chaos on First North Western Trains in 1998 when too many drivers were allowed to leave, resulting in cuts in services. That happened before he joined the company and therefore it was not at all his responsibility. However, it was noticeable that several of his former colleagues were almost queuing up to criticise Mitchell, giving me all kinds of colourful stories about his past career.

The rail industry can be a bitchy place and some of these are unprintable. The tone of much of the comment was summed up by one caller who said: “His sole objective always seemed to be ripping cost out rather than focusing on the customers.” Another told me a presumably apocryphal story that his friend had once been fired by Mitchell: “He was a visitor to the company and walked into the office, and Mitchell said, what are you doing here, you are fired.” It was a case of mistaken identity, apparently.

To attract that number of enemies, admittedly in a long career, is not a good sign and there are even doubts as to whether he will survive to take the job since one of them went straight to the Sunday Express to ‘diss and tell’.

The paper reported that “During his tenure at FirstGroup, Mitchell faced two allegations of sexual harassment from female employees. Both allegations were investigated by the company but found to be unproven.” Well, not much of a story then, but it was clear that this came from a railway source.

Another part of the article referred to the story of the platform bench which, while at BR, Mitchell had bought for £10 when it was worth £80 and he was criticised in a subsequent investigation. The suggestion in the story was that he had left BR soon after that under something of a cloud.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the department will not have liked that. Panic has already set in at Marsham Street and Mitchell himself has gone to ground, not attending a prestigious dinner he had previously said hewould attend. And he has not responded to inquiries through the FirstGroup press office.

But maybe the most damaging comment came from a friend: “It’s a bit sad if that’s what they want. He is hard-nosed, very focused on cost and doing the business. But I can’t imagine him going into a room full of demoralised railway people and rallying them round his cause.”

Mitchell beat off a lot of candidates who had a good track record of building up organisations rather than cutting them. One of these go-getter candidates told me that he was informed he did not have the right kind of civil servant credentials and did not make the shortlist, although he had run a major transport company.

From my experience, that means he wanted to get something done and that is not what the department wanted. Civil servants are very good at being policy wonks and working out all sorts of clever strategies for their political bosses, but they are lousy at delivery. One could ask, too, whether Mitchell has better civil servant qualifications than those who did not make the shortlist.

Essentially, the feeling in the industry is that Mitchell has been appointed to teach them a lesson, to drive down costs. In other words, the axeman cometh. His appointment bears the hallmarks of the permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, David Rowlands, who finds it hard to disguise his dislike of the railways.

Yet Rowlands, who was for a long time a senior official in the railways directorate, and oversaw the rail review, bears some of the responsibility for the current mess in the railways and has now clearly appointed someone who he feels will be able to bear down on costs.

That is the message being sent out to the industry which, according to an article in Transit magazine, still has many people who are completely unaware that they are living on borrowed time. The article referred to ‘a senior rail boss’ who recently confided that he believes that his industry colleagues appear unaware of how close to the edge the railway is currently trading. “They seem to think that however much it costs, the government will write out the cheque.”

Well, those people better beware of Costcutter Mitchell – if he gets to Marsham Street, that is.

First class confusion – again

Why do the rail franchisees insist on calling themselves by silly names like ‘one’ and First? This causes confusion for customers as witnessed by any train announcement concerning ‘one’, and the case of the antimacassars a couple of years ago on First Great Western.

Longstanding readers will remember that episode, which was one of this column’s rare victories when FirstGroup decided to remove them. However, First has been at it again. On its TransPennine Express franchise, the coaches on the Class 158 DMUs now sport an external livery which confusingly includes the brand name ‘First’ about 300mm high in splendid isolation below the windows on all coaches of these sets (as pictured in the last issue of RAIL).

So yet again, the occasional rail travellers, who have no idea of the existence of FirstGroup, are fooled by this and try to find another carriage. A reader says he knows of “at least one instance where older ladies have been confused by this and thought that this meant that these were coaches with first class seating.”

So come on, First, sort it out! Or is this one for Mitchell’s in-tray if he arrives at the department on time on May 1?

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