Magazine article Management Today

Inroads into Transport

Magazine article Management Today

Inroads into Transport

Article excerpt

Nothing changes in British transport, it seems. In the late 1960s, the then Ministry of Transport forecast that by 1970 half of the trunk road network would be 'seriously overcrowded'. Now overcrowding is a way of life. With over 23 million cars on the roads, London drivers can expect 'gridlock' at least a dozen times a year.

Britain's rail network is in an equally bad state. Policy has veered from support of the railways as a national asset to quite ruthless Treasury cuts. In the mid-1960s, the pruners were in the ascendant. BR was struggling to come to terms with Dr Beeching's 1963 axe. Branch lines were being closed all over the country, as the network shrank from some 17,000 miles to its current 10,300. Beeching raised passions in rural areas to new heights, but in truth patronage of branch line trains was limited and the lure of the motor car proved irresistible. With oil prices at $1 a barrel, private transport won hands down.

By the late 1960s rail was enjoying a brief renaissance. The Transport Act 1968 had regularised BR finances, with loss-making services protected by a government subsidy. The second part of Beeching's plan -- major investment in the express services -- was also instituted. Once the main-line from London to Manchester and Liverpool was electrified, 100 mph trains were running: passenger traffic grew by 65% in one year.

But any optimism about the future of rail was to prove short-lived. Motorists endured the 1973-74 hike in oil prices and a 50 mph speed limit on motorways with equanimity. BR, by contrast, was financially derailed.

Industrial relations were another problem. In 1976, BR proposed a 40% cut in its workforce and 17 points of productivity improvement. five years later, only half the jobs had gone, while just five of the 17 areas showed any significant improvement.

Railway fortunes reached their nadir when a 1981 inquiry into the future of the network advocated cutting the railway back to a few main lines. The Serpell Report was seen off by Tory backbenchers fearful of the effect on their majorities, but the message was clear. BR had to operate in a much more business-like manner.

In fact, a new railway age was dawning. Transport secretary Nicholas Ridley had appointed Sir Bob Reid, a professional railman, to succeed Parker. Ridley and Reid made a pact: BR's cost-saving investment programme would be stepped up in return for overhauling its unwieldy organisation.

The old regions were replaced by business sectors with clear targets and BR's finances were transformed, as more efficient trains came on stream. …

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