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Discusses British Rail's (BR's) organizational transformation during the 1980s and in particular the position of R.B. Reid, chairman of the British Railways Board (BRD) during that period. As a career railwayman, Reid was an atypical choice to chair the BRB. Considers how Reid brought his professional knowledge and experience to bear in carrying through arguably one of the most fundamental processes of change and organizational development that BR has experienced in the past 40 year.
The time-frame of achievement
Chairmen of the British Railways Board (BRB) normally have not been career railwaymen: R.B. Reid was a notable exception. Experienced, knowledgeable and determined, between 1983 and 1990 Reid carried through arguably one of the most fundamental and potentially far-reaching processes of change and organizational development that British Rail (BR) has experienced in the past 40 years. By the time he stepped down in 1990, Sir Robert Reid (as he had become) had transformed BR's organization and operational performance. Growth in BR's productivity and financial performance was among the fastest in Europe, and BR ended that decade as one of the most productive and certainly the most profitable rail networks in Western Europe (BRB, 1992; Nash and Preston, 1994).
Government decision criteria can have more to do with stereotypical ideas driven by ideology and response to party and electoral priorities than to tested knowledge and reasoned evaluation (Etheredge and Short, 1983; Gilmour, 1993). Politically Reid was not an obvious choice to chair the BRB, and he certainly was not the Thatcher government's ideal or first choice for that post. A 62-year old career railwayman, he was a soft-spoken widower who kept a low profile, in sharp contrast to his prominent predecessor, Sir Peter Parker. The Thatcher government had sought strenuously but unsuccessfully to find another "tougher" outsider to chair British Rail and "shake up the industry" -- despite the fact that a succession of such outsiders, including the redoubtable Dr Beeching, largely had failed to do so. So what did Reid achieve? And why was he able to achieve it when others had failed?
BR before the 1980s
Railway routes involve substantial civil engineering and are fixed, but their sources of traffic are not. History demonstrates overwhelmingly that it has been loss of traffic (often, loss of a primary source of mineral or heavy freight traffic) that has caused a railway to be abandoned, rather than shortcomings in its organization or operation. The UK's industrial infrastructure has changed radically over the past half century; by the time of Richard Beeching's incumbency as chairman of the BRB (1962-1965), loss of traffic to road competition already was more severe in Britain than in any other country in Western Europe (ECMT, 1964).
Despite this, the response of successive British governments had been not to institute substantial reconceptualization, change and development to enable the UK's railways to respond most effectively to changing transport needs in a complex competitive environment; rather it had been to seek to modify, repeatedly, the patterns of BR's organization. Indeed, it would be true to say that the UK's railways have undergone more reorganization in the half-century since 1945 than during the preceding century and more of their existence. A succession of select committees, advisory groups, committees of enquiry and consultants had left BR's organization more in a state of flux than equilibrium, while Sir Peter Parker observed that governments had kept BR in a position of "perpetual audit" (Parker, 1983). However, by 1980 reorganization still had not delivered conspicuous success, operationally or financially (Pryke, 1981), rather, it indicated that after four decades' experience, the UK still had not arrived at an appropriate set of arrangements for managing relationships with public industries (Woodward, 1989).
In effect, the UK's nationalized railways had been subject not so much to the dead hand of Whitehall as the too-lively fingers of Westminster. BR's operational managers consequently had long experience of having to adapt to political pressures of the day irrespective of whether or not they considered these to be in …