Does it Take a Dictator to Make Trains Run on Time? The Case of Network Rail

Network Rail has been given a record fine for its poor operational record over the New Year. It accepts it must improve, and says it has installed military style leadership. Which raises the old question: ‘does it take a dictator to make the trains run on time?’

O.K., here’s a confession. Network Rail doesn’t actually run trains. It looks after the tracks, and gets blamed when the trains fail to run on time, and that’s the tenuous link with the old myth about trains needing dictators to be run on time.

The current case came to a head with the news story that Network Rail

[Network Rail] has a month to haul the upgrade of its busiest line back on track after regulators imposed a record £14m fine and a package of measures to tackle the infrastructure company’s lacklustre planning procedures.
The Office of Rail Regulation yesterday gave Network Rail until March 31 to agree with passenger and freight train operators a new plan for the £8.12bn upgrade of the London-Glasgow West Coast Main Line. The project is due to allow substantial reductions in journey times and more frequent services from December this year but is more than 300 hours of work behind schedule.

According to the BBC

Network Rail’s chief executive Ian Coucher said his company had now put “military-style” command posts in place, and he pledged that the delays suffered by passengers over the New Year would not be repeated.

Let’s say I’m a bit sceptical. About Dictators making the trains run on time. About Network Rail’s changed operating procedures.

The Background

Network Rail came into existence as an emergency measure when in an earlier incarnation, Railtrack, failed to meet its charter. Railtrack was itself part of one of the last efforts to introduce competitiveness into Britain’s public sector transport systems. The plan always had a clunky feel to it. The vision of effectiveness through liberation of free market entrepreneurial behaviours through competition proved too much to achieve.

Competition between the new companies owning trains was always marginal, outside a few fingers of land in commuter territories. No way was found to breathe competition into the operation of the track, which is where Railtrack, and subsequently Network Rail came in.

The Government’s Dilemma

The dilemma for the Government was pointed out by commentators such as Management Today.

Network Rail is, to all intents and purposes, a nationalised company (although the government doesn’t technically class it as such, or it would have to take its enormous debts onto the public balance sheet). It’s not run for profit, and it doesn’t have any shareholders. So where exactly is this £14m – a record fine for a rail company – going to come from?

The only possible answer is that either the government hands over £14m of taxpayers’ money to pay the fine (which would basically amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul), or the money is taken from the pot that Network Rail is using to upgrade the railways. And as punishments go, this seems a bit self-defeating – how is it going to do an under-invested rail network any good if the Chancellor confiscates £14m from the network operator for the Treasury coffers?

The Mussolini Myth

So might a dictatorial approach be worth considering? Would the trains then run on time? That may be in the nature of an cultural myth. It arose around the Italian dictator Mussolini. The history-debunking site Snapes will have none of it.

Turns out that there were efforts to improve Italy’s ramshackle railway companies in the 1920s, before Il Duce came to power. Mussolini claimed two things. One that the trains now ran one time. And two, that he had achieved the changes through his leadership. Neither claim seems to survive more careful scrutiny.

So when Network Rail claims to have improved by introducing more military discipline into its operations, we might be wise to exercise some caution about promises and premises.

You don’t need a dictator

A related case illustrates that you don’t need a dictator to run a rail business well. The business is National Express. The rather non-dictatorial leader is Richard Bowker. The story requires a post of its own.

National Express runs the C2C, Gatwick Express and One Rail franchises, bus businesses in Birmingham, London and Dundee, and long distance coaches across the UK. Richard Bowker has been hailed as an effective leader of a complex business.

Bowker, the one-time government rail enforcer, is a graduate of the Sir Richard Branson school of management, his natural style being casual clothes and an easy-going manner. Last Thursday he unveiled an impressive set of full-year results, the first he can claim as all his own work

Reporter David Parsley noted the difference in style in the former rail regulator.

Bowker is a changed man. He’s friendly, open and makes a great deal more sense than he ever did working for the Government. It’s like someone has taken his brain off a Whitehall shelf and put it back in.

Situational leadership? Maybe, but it is clearly counter-evidence to the simplistic proposition that you need a dictator to make the trains run on time.


6 Responses to Does it Take a Dictator to Make Trains Run on Time? The Case of Network Rail

  1. Hi Tudor,

    Correct me if I am wrong, but there may be a significant and relevant (to your blog) difference between Network Rail and National Express.

    The former is a relatively straightforward, capital intensive business with a limited number of customers. As with big factories, power-plants etc in the early days of the USSR, a “dictatorial” management approach can achieve quite a bit.

    National Express (please remember that I don’t live in the UK) would seem to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. There would seem to be a number of smaller businesses operating in more competitive markets (albeit, still transport) with more room to be innovative. Indeed, the inability of USSR central planning to cope with such aspects of the modern consumer world was one of the reasons for the ultimate failure of its “dictatorship”.


  2. Tudor says:

    Got me bangs to right there, Jeff. Moscow Correspondent 1 : Britblog Editor 0

    I was guilty of a poor comparison example as you rightly point out.

    I may need a better illustrative example, although I don’t think you are disagreeing about the main point of the post, that dictators (‘military style management’ was the quote) are not needed for trains to run on time.

    Best wishes

  3. Tudor,

    Perhaps the most impressive feature of Russian management is the ability to make the national rail (and Moscow metro) system “run on time”. However, I have no idea as to the amount of resources used to achieve this — ie output is great, but what about input (efficiency).


  4. Tudor says:

    Hm. This is a bit more complicated than I originally thought. As a member of a railway family for a couple of generations I have a rosy-tinted with of the GWR running to time, with people like my Grandfather and Father pulling levers and maintaining the track. And my books on Imperial Railways uggested that the systems in India, Rhodesia and other ‘colonies’ also ran to time….

  5. Myths and GWR: a chap with a great name – Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He considered track and trains as part of the same design brief.

    My opinion is that good design throughout the system will make a railway run on time, not a dictator, though it may need a dictator to run the show. Brunel wanted to run his trains on “broad gauge” track rather than standard gauge which was designed for local use in coal mines. It would have paid dividends over and over to have listened to him as higher capacity and speeds could have been achieved on a national scale.

    My feeling is that the same show should be running the tracks and the rolling stock would be most sensible. As well as optimising the rail network, it should help optimise the roads and the environment by removing freight from the roads. An integrated national transport policy which focuses on the environment and quality of life for tax payers is what is required. This is a job for the state.

    Perhaps after the tax payer has made his money from loaning the cash to Northern Rock a similar arrangement could be applied to the railways and roads. Buy it all back and have a serious rethink! Involve the education system! Integrate transport into the environment lessons, lets have some engineers input into the system at the highest level in the future. Who is the Brunel of the day? Tom Windsor? Richard Branson? It could be cool to be into trains – “bullet trains and magnetic levitation today kids”

    It is obvious to anyone that the transport system is ruining the county: there are too many cars and lorries. The cars are getting bigger!!! It feels very dangerous if you have a “small” car these days… All these bullies on the road is enough to drive a nation to drink….

    Lets take those huge 4 wheel drive cars, buses and lorries of the road and get the people and goods onto railways. Let it be “nice” and “clean” and not cramped. Let it be cheap so that everyone uses it.

    This will make cycling less like a battle for survival against irate commuters with beetroot faces sucking on cigarettes in never ending traffic jams. We will all in a fitter happier and more productive state and in a better shape to compete with other nations in international markets.

    There seems to be a lot of talent in corporate maneuvering, contract writing and goal setting and not enough creativity of systems thinking going on. It seems to be making the nation ill and fighting itself all the time over what should be something quite simple. Nationalise rail and incorporate travel into each persons NHS health education programme.

    I’ll go back to work now, thanks for the procrastination opportunity

    bye bye
    Procrastination King (TM)

  6. […] back was actually spent working from home. Major upset, big enquiries, compensation paid, fines of £14m levied. Of course, they won’t want to have that happen […]

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