Nothing characterises the flawed structure of the rail industry better than the jaunt to Buckingham Palace by the chairman of Network Rail, Ian McAllister to collect his knighthood. Unfortunately for McAllister, it coincided with the day his company was fined £14m by the rail regulator for the post Christmas chaos at Rugby and two other sites.
He had, though, been warned, since the date of the regulator’s decision had been announced earlier that week. A man more conscious of the precariousness of his company’s reputation might just conceivably have told Her Maj that he was otherwise occupied that day and collected his gong when the attention of the press was elsewhere. Or someone with a greater sense of his worth might have told her that given the travails of the company, the reward was rather more than he deserved.
This is not just a matter of scoring a debating point against a fat cat. McAllister’s lack of concern over the Rugby incident in the first place, when he told the Daily Mail that he would just be in the way if he went into the office during the holiday break, suggests that neither taxpayers nor the railway are getting much benefit from the £250,000 he is paid annually.
McAllister’s failure to recognise the PR damage he caused is illustrative of the arrogance that permeates the company culture. While things have undoubtedly improved since the Railtrack days when the company alienated not only passengers but the whole of the rail industry, there is still little recognition among its bosses of the hugely privileged position they are in, given that Network Rail is a monopoly funded by almost endless amounts of government cash.
Rugby and subsequent events have raised very fundamental questions about the future of Network Rail. The fact that the only way to discipline the company is through fines whose only effect is to reduce the amount available to invest in the industry has not been lost on ministers. Network Rail is one more debacle – either a similar major overrun or an accident – from attracting a thorough investigation of the way that the industry is structured and Network Rail’s role in it. Watch first, though, for McAllister’s quiet departure in the next few months.