Obituary: James Towler

JAMES TOWLER, who was Chairman of the Transport Users Consultative Committee for Yorkshire from 1979 to 1985 and for all North-East England, 1985-87, was a man of strongly independent mind. He represented railway passengers in a skilled and high-profile way, and played a crucial role in the 1980s in saving from closure the Settle and Carlisle railway.

Bob Cryer, the late MP for Keighley, described him as "a 19th-century Whig with a radical edge". Towler was recognised by press and public across the North of England as the strongest-ever official defender of rail users, while being seen by some (but not all) British Rail managers, and by Conservative ministers, as an unwelcome persistent critic. He enjoyed recounting how one told him, "The trouble with you is that you travel on too many trains." Managers, he realised, did not travel on their trains enough. His approach to public transport needs of ordinary people remains of central importance in the era of the Labour government's "New Deal for the Railways".

Until Towler's appointment in 1979, BR had had an easy ride from the "toothless watchdog" committees. He dramatically raised the Yorkshire TUCC's profile and ended its subservience to BR, breaking a practice that had given the TUCC a poor reputation in the Beeching era for not resisting closures.

An early success was the transfer of diesel High Speed Trains on to the Sheffield-London route, left out of Intercity modernisation in the 1970s' "The Age of the Train" under Sir Peter Parker. Working with Sheffield City Council, Towler cajoled BR out of a "Waiting for Godot" stance that only electrification of the Midland Main Line would bring better services. Subsequently he did much to encourage growth in West and South Yorkshire local rail services, working to smooth over difficulties between the local Passenger Transport Executives and BR.

With the contentious Serpell Report on Railway Finances publishing options for major network cutbacks in 1982, closures were no longer off the agenda. Towler's TUCC found itself handling objections to the axing of the Sheffield- Penistone-Huddersfield line serving south Pennine communities, and of the Goole swingbridge, which would have cut the main line from the south into Hull. Both continued in service after negotiation with local authorities, Towler working behind the scenes.

When Towler first faced up to BR's proposed closure of the Settle-Carlisle line, the 72-mile "finest scenic route in England", there was a sense of doom over rural railways. There were few at first who believed it could be saved.

Towler's crucial role was that he slowed down the process by challenging BR to produce justification for closure, which it never could, and bought time for the national movement to gather to save the line. He found legal faults in BR's procedures, and closure notices were reissued more than once: what he called the "Battle of the Small Print". And he rigorously and relentlessly presented the facts of a complex and controversial public issue to an impatient, often indifferent and largely ignorant government.

While more politically favoured chairmen were regularly re- appointed, Towler was refused a new term at the height of his reputation in March 1987, causing angry Commons exchanges. He had taken his committee's legal powers and duty seriously, and it had "strongly and emphatically" recommended the closure of the Settle-Carlisle line be refused. Both BR and the Department of Transport wanted him out; a hapless consumer affairs minister, Lord Lucas, obliged.

After his report to ministers in December 1986 and his subsequent sacking, he was elected Chairman of the Railway Development Society in Yorkshire, cheerfully describing his job as having been privatised. He carried on in his polite, patient but determined way, speaking for passengers and fighting to save the Settle-Carlisle line. After a confused attempt by the Government in 1988 to "privatise or close" it, Paul Channon, the Transport Secretary, harassed by a set of transport disasters, refused closure on 16 April 1989. Towler told the story in The Battle for the Settle & Carlisle (1990).

Towler lived to see the reversal of rail cutbacks: the Settle-Carlisle line now carries modern local trains serving reopened Dales stations and is again being heavily used by freight. Less happily, he watched the emasculation of the TUCC after his dismissal, initially by weaker appointments. Their reorganisation in the 1994 rail privatisation led to imposition of a deadening bureaucracy and departure of staff and members knowledgeable about railways. In July 1998 it was, however, announced that users' committees will move to the Strategic Rail Authority and be strengthened.

Born in 1932, Towler was the only son of a West Riding businessman. He left school at 16 and followed his enthusiasm for films by working as a junior cinema manager before joining the family engineering business. He was later chairman of a plant manufacturer and a director of Pennine Radio, West Yorkshire's first commercial station. He was an enthusiast for light entertainment, and had a long association with The Stage, reporting on performers throughout Yorkshire, as well as reviewing television in later years. An opponent of Britain's EEC entry in the early 1970s, he was drawn into regional CBI activities; the CBI nominated him to the Yorkshire TUCC. Local broadcasting experience made him and excellent writer and speaker.

He married Muriel Myers in 1956. She was a constant support to him throughout his campaigning for rail users: "You have to laugh, don't you?" was her regular comment on the absurder actions of officialdom.

Mark Sullivan

James Drummond Towler, railway users' representative and businessman: born Shipley, Yorkshire 31 December 1932; married 1956 Muriel Myers (one son); died Leeds 26 November 1998.

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