I am not usually one to kick a person when he’s down, but there is a certain enjoyment watching the discomfiture of Richard Bowker, the boss of National Express. And not just because he wrote a scathing review of my book, On the Wrong Line, which you can enjoy on my website. It’s also because Bowker represents everything that is wrong with the privatised railway, a man who pretends that the industry he is making a lot of money out of is at the cutting edge of capitalism and entrepreneurship when, in fact, the train operators are rewarded royally for taking very little risk. And when they face risks, they go running to Mummy as seems to be happening now with National Express. He is paid over £1m a year for a job of overseeing a very staid and unentreprising business of providing public services, often subsidised, a task that hardly merits such a stratospheric salary.
It is not all fun, of course. It must have been difficult for him to have to address the national Rail conference yesterday without being able to refer to his own company’s travails and to be fair to him he did turn up. But the speech, to an audience of rail managers, consisted of very superficial analysis of rail’s environmental advantages and it might well have been better if he had sent his apologies instead.
If Bowker had been vested with a tad more humility and dollops less arrogance, we might still possibly have an SRA and a rather more sensible way of running the railway than we do today with its control from Whitehall and its lack of accountability. But as I wrote in a very early column following his appointment to lead the SRA, he did not understand the political world and shows, today, very little sign of having learnt about it, or else he would have been far more circumspect about negotiations with the government than the numerous leaks suggest he has been.
That Bowker has survived today’s AGM at National Express where it was revealed that growth had all but halted on the East Coast Main Line, rather than the hoped for 9 per cent rise, is remarkable testimony to his durability.
Given the slump in the company’s share price, and that it was Bowker who said, when won the franchise that he had not overbid, he is probably not long for the job but will undoubtedly pick up a handsome pay-off. So its hard to feel too much sympathy.