Rail 442: Expulsions but extra pocket money for the class of 2002

In his annual end-of-term report, headmaster CHRISTIAN WOLMAR gives his verdict on the performance of pupils at the school of railway children after another tumultuous academic year.

It is the time of the year to review the performance of the pupils in the school of railway children. Last year’s report (RAIL 416) warned that pupils had to try harder or face expulsion. That showed prescience worthy of my alter ego, Mystic Wolmar. Indeed, even Mystic could not have predicted that there would have been such a huge number of pupils sent off for a premature end to their railway careers.

My fellow teachers in the media have all been banging on about Railtrack class for some years. It was already singled out as the worst performer by ‘some distance’ last year and its lack of improvement has resulted in the inevitable: the whole class has had to be thrown out and replaced by a new class, Network Rail, whose pupils joined the school too late to be assessed for 2001/02.

Railtrack did just about everything wrong. I already referred last time to Stephen Marshall, the head of Railtrack class, stupidly paying out dividends to his shareholders despite losing £534m that year. Well, Marshall, I bet you wished you hadn’t done it now, you silly boy! Certainly that was one of the events which led to the wholesale expulsion of all his colleagues, but the chairman of the class – I’m struggling to remember his name, ah yes, Robertson, no Robinson, John Robinson – proved to be even dafter. Off he went to see – the also now expelled (see below) – Stephen Byers to ask, Oliver Twist-like, for more, only to be sent away with a flea in his ear.

Not surprisingly in October, Byers said he had had enough of such requests and that Railtrack class was to be shut down. Even then the class could have redeemed themselves somewhat by challenging the Byers decision or tried to stall it by applying for Winsor’s class to intervene, but no, they sat on their hands until after the weekend and then moaned and moaned and moaned.

It is hard not to feel sorry for some of the class, particularly those hard-working people who are not prefects, but there is little sympathy for any of those who are being forced to go. Indeed, most of the junior members of Railtrack and even one of the senior pupils, John Armitt, who is universally reckoned to have done well this year particularly in the aftermath of the Potters Bar disaster, will be staying at the school and joining Network Rail class when it is fully up and running later this year.

Just a few words about the contractors’ class which reports to Railtrack. It has been another bad year, given the Potters Bar accident and, shamefully, the attempts by Jarvis to absolve itself of blame with heavy media briefing. We don’t like tell-tales in this school, Jarvis, so beware, you will get your comeuppance should the ultimate accident report not find in your favour. It must be said that as a whole the contractors’ class is in a state of limbo and this is particularly shown by the huge prices they try to extract off everyone else. Expect further developments here.

Staying with the theme of departures, Stephen Byers of Government class only lasted one year in the school. As the headmaster, I have been criticised in the past for being a bit lenient on this boy but he did leave some real achievements behind him: preparing the ground for expulsion of Railtrack, the appointments of Richard Bowker as prefect in the Strategic Rail Authority class and John Armitt in Railtrack, and some good behindthe- scenes liaison with the rail industry as a whole. But, in retrospect, it must be said that Byers’s expulsion was inevitable. It was not just the failure to deal with the – again now expelled – Jo Moore for sending malicious e-mails but a slight problem with what was famously once called the actualité. This manifested itself particularly over the issue of when the decision to foreclose on Railtrack was made and, given this was such a high-profile issue, expulsion eventually proved inevitable.

In Health & Safety Executive class, there was also the expulsion of Vic Coleman who was rather harshly treated by Lord Cullen. Nevertheless, this class has been in disarray for some time, not least because it appears more concerned with backside than trackside protection. The pupils need to get a grip and demonstrate their expertise proudly, without being concerned about what the teachers or Government class have to say.

There were also a series of expulsions of the prefects in Strategic Rail Authority class. It was a great shame that Alastair Morton never fulfilled his early promise. He kept on falling out with boys in the other classes, particularly Tom Winsor in Regulator class, but also, stupidly, the fellows in Treasury who really should not be messed with. So farewell, Alastair, and your chief sidekick, Mike Grant who was bottom of the class for much of his stay because he never seemed to be able to make up his mind and paid the ultimate penalty.

That’s it for expulsions, though I understand Winsor is also thinking of leaving, but only after he finishes the five-year course. Now, staying with SRA class, the new head prefect is Richard Bowker who has made a solid start. He has appointed a good team of prefects, with the transfer of Jim Steer from his own class as the strategic thinker for the railways being potentially a great coup. The first year for Bowker has been one of sorting out the mess from his predecessor and trying to consolidate, but the second one will be much more difficult as results will be expected by the boys over in Government class and, of course, the public.

Bowker still has to grapple with a number of problems, notably the refranchising programme, the West Coast Main Line débâcle, the debate over safety systems, capacity issues and many more. It is one hell of a big agenda for one young lad and even with 250,000 smackers to compensate him for his troubles – he is newly-wed too – the prospect can only be said to be uncertain.

While on the subject of new boys, a quick word about the other Alistair, the new prefect of Government class, Darling. Apart from being hindered by having a silly surname – the previous boy suffered greatly from rhyming with Byers and alliterating with all kinds of rude words – Darling has made a solid but dull start. Indeed, dullness is clearly going to be his chief characteristic which is a shame because, I understand, when alone with the other boys he can be a real laff, as the Northerners say. Darling is clearly highly intelligent and capable, and specialises in creeping round the class so that no one notices him and he is never asked awkward questions. Now, lad, you won’t get away with that in the school for railway children. You will get noticed and the teachers will start seeking answers to those questions.

Darling has clearly been sent in by the boy Blair, the capo di tutti capi, to ensure that the whole school behaves itself. Now, as headmaster having presided over this school for nearly a decade, I can tell you it will not work. The school is still in a mess, and expecting it to perform well with the current structure is a mistake. Still, again, we look forward to next year’s report.

Which brings us to Rail Regulator class. Last year I remarked that its prefect, Tom Winsor, was a bit too free and easy with the sermons and was rather hard on Railtrack class boys. Well, the latter certainly proved true and there are quite a few in the school who blame Winsor for Railtrack’s demise. But it must be said that, overall, Winsor has had a good year. It was not his fault that the silly boys in Railtrack did not seek his help during the famous weekend in October when they were attacked by Byers and could have sought an interim review to prop up their piggybank. True, they had been put off by his hard comments about begging bowls, but they should still have gone to Uncle Tom and sought his advice.

Most impressively, Winsor has given up on the sharp sermons and – this is really hard to believe but is true – now addresses his fellow pupils in other classes and indeed the teachers, in a tone that is relaxed and easygoing compared with his past efforts. (His run-in with the head teacher at a press conference when he said, “Call yourself an expert, well I’ll show you how to be one” was his high point.) Has there been an intensive course of public speaking and media training, or has the boy seen the light and realised the error of his ways? His progress speaks volumes for the school of hard knocks and his performance recently on the Today programme was definitely worthy of an A-plus.

There is now widespread regret that he is not staying on for another five years but it is understandable given that the role of the whole class – and it is an uncommonly large class – has to be put in question by the new structure of the industry with Network Rail at its heart. Winsor saw off Byers’s attempt to merge the SRA and Regulator classes but I suspect there may be further attempts down the line.

Finally to train operators’ class. Another patchy year. Richard Branson again shines out by having introduced his new trains, though with some inevitable delays, and he has again shown a tedious passion for cavorting with the girl pupils at special events that normally involve dry ice and hanging out of trains in a way of which the HSE would greatly disapprove. Among the others, it is unfortunate that one of the best pupils in past years, Bob Breakwell, has decided to throw in the towel, Otherwise, there is a distinct lack of good young pupils emerging and a lot of concern about where new prefects will come from. Moreover, overall there has been a continued lack of vision except where demands for extra pocket money have been concerned, with surprisingly, even the Stagecoach set being granted more cash. A lot of pupils have used blackmail to get extra funds under the threat of throwing in the towel. Bowker at the SRA really needs to exercise closer control, especially financial, over this class.

Prospects: It is, again, difficult to be optimistic about the forthcoming year. Network Rail faces a very tough job in establishing itself at the heart of the industry and must forge good links with the SRA. There is still a lot of uncertainty and I am sure that next year I will again be reporting on major changes. I wish the pupils good luck, as they will need it.

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