Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking to former British Rail staff for my forthcoming book for Penguin on how it became the most efficient railway in Europe. The extent to which they think that BR had the right structure may vary but there is a consistent thread to their stories. They all talk about how the railway was a family, how at bad times people pulled together to try to ensure that difficulties were overcome.
Of course it was not always one big happy family. There were industrial disputes, though not as many as many as conventional wisdom suggests, and there was, at least until the early 1980s, a drinking culture that would be completely unacceptable today. There were undoubtedly differences between engineers and operational people, and indeed the structure was not as integrated as generally thought until the implementation of OfQ (Organising for Quality) in the early 1990s.
However, time and again, my interviewees referred to the collegiate and supportive atmosphere in which different parts of the organisation worked together to provide a better service. The main problem with the organisation was that for so long its focus was on costs, and not on quality. Heroic reductions in spending were made while keeping pretty much the same level of service. It was not really until the last decade or so, with the division into five sectors – three passenger and two freight – that managers worked within a conventional profit and loss account.
Underlying this emphasis on costs was the budget for the railway, which was set annually for each financial year. Worse, at times British Rail was not told of how much money would be available until the financial year had actually started. Getting rid of this annualised structure, which prevented long term planning and was incredibly wasteful as managers were well aware that anything left in the kitty at the end of the year would be clawed back by the Department of Transport, was the biggest benefit of privatisation. But it came at a heavy price, the loss of the integrated structure and the co-operative working which ultimately was, as we know now, a far more efficient and cheaper way of working.
We are now in limbo land with a structure for the railways that is a patched up temporary fix. There is a widespread recognition that we need a new body that will provide oversight and strategy for the railway, but there is still a blind acceptance that competition and private sector involvement are necessary components of the new structure. It is a shame that those drawing up this new structure do not realise the importance of what is lost by this emphasis – the co-operation and mutual support that comes from working together towards a common goal.