: Robert Horton played a crucial and controversial role in the privatisation of Britain’s railways in the mid 1990s and can be characterised to some extent as the villain of the piece. The largely ‘back of an envelope’ privatisation scheme put forward hastily by the Tories after their surprise 1992 election victory envisaged Railtrack, responsible for the track and infrastructure of the railways, remaining in public ownership at least until after the following election to give the railways some stability while the rest was sold off.
After he was made chairman of Railtrack in February 1993, Horton set about changing that. I met him soon after and he was adamant he wanted Railtrack to be privatised. He was charming and open about his aims. His argument was that keeping the company under state control would mean that it would always be subject to spending restrictions and the vagaries of Treasury policy. In an interview with me for my book, Broken Rails, he said: ‘I always felt that the long term-funding requirements were for infrastructure and we would not get these amounts of money unless we were privatised. I started lobbying ministers, strongly pointing out that it as likely there would be a change of government and that would leave Railtrack in the public sector’.
Horton found allies among senior civil servants, such as Steve Robson at the Treasury (later a non-executive director of RBS during its disastrous expansion period) and Nick Montagu at the Department for Transport (later head of the Inland Revenue), and they persuaded the Chancellor, Ken Clarke, that the privatisation would be advantageous by bringing in a large capital receipt. In the event, the privatisation of the infrastructure company proved disastrous as it was totally unsuited to the short term requirements of a shareholder controlled plc and ultimately, after the near collapse of the railways following the Hatfield train accident in 2000, very costly for the Treasury.