Profile: The model railwayman: Chris Green is set on making rail privatisation succeed in his old haunt of Scotland. Nicholas Faith reports

Click to follow
CHRIS GREEN can't remember if he had a train set as a child, but he certainly had no desire to be an engine driver. He was not attracted to railways by the roar of the engine shed or the smell of steam, but by 'the sheer logistics of running trains and organising people'.

And that's just as well, for the hopes of the rail privatisers rest on the capacity of this model of a modern railwayman to run ScotRail, which is responsible for all the trains in Scotland other than a handful of express trains from England.

Last week, Green, now director of InterCity, announced that he would lead a bid by its management for the franchise of ScotRail. He is returning to a business which he ran from 1984 to 1986, to prepare it for privatisation by setting up a shadow franchise company to run ScotRail for up to a year before the Government puts the franchise up for offer in April 1995.

'Remember,' he says, 'it's franchising, not privatisation. Many of us are railwaymen because we believe in the product dealing with people who want it to work. No one else in the world has done this and fragmented a railway - we're moving into uncharted territory.' So he welcomes the 'shadow year' to see if private finance really can be raised for a network which at the moment gets only pounds 90m from customers, pounds 100m from the Treasury and a further pounds 30m from Strathclyde Regional Council, itself due to be fragmented in 1996.

If anyone can make a go of privatisation, it is Green. 'He knows ScotRail inside out,' says one observer. 'He really likes to run a railway. Part of the reason why he didn't want to be one of the big men in the new central management was that it may just be politics, not running a railway.'

Green is bidding for the only franchise that makes anything like business sense. By contrast, his present bailiwick is being divided into seven parts, against his advice. Unlike his boss, Sir Bob Reid, Green argued publicly for the retention of InterCity.' It's a famous brand,' he says. 'We've given the name to other European countries, and, originally, I don't believe anyone wanted to break it up. In this country, it has achieved 94 per cent recognition since it was set up 27 years ago, the sort of recognition any private sector company would spend hundreds of millions to achieve.'

Green's failure to persuade the Government to retain InterCity as a single unit was the first in a glittering career. Brought up among a family of teachers in Richmond, Surrey, he enjoyed an early taste of commuting by travelling every day to St Paul's School. After studying history at Oriel College, Oxford, he thought of becoming a civil servant in the Ministry of Transport but opted for an unfashionable career with British Railways, then run by Lord Beeching - he of the famous axe. But Green 'saw the positive things that Beeching was doing'. He adds: 'I think the nation got over-emotional at that time.'

Dapper, personable, articulate, Green was soon spotted as a high flyer in an organisation dominated, then as now, by mediocre organisation men. He rose quickly through the ranks and his career path - and that of his predecessor at InterCity, Dr John Prideaux - speeded up in the mid-1980s during the chairmanship of the 'first' Sir Bob Reid, an old-time railwayman.

Green took over as general manager of ScotRail in April 1984, when he was only 40. He was well placed to see and encourage the changes. 'When I joined in 1965,' he says, 'you needed silver hair and preferably a beard, plus 40 years in the operations business before you got near the top. But we just can't afford that feudal style of management any more.'

He was lucky to achieve independent command soon after British Rail divided its operations into a logically coherent structure.

During his 20 months in Scotland, the characteristic Green style of management was formulated, combining a dose of image-making (which opponents denounce as mere gimmickry) with more real decisions. On the 'image side' was the whole idea of ScotRail as an independent network, Green's preference 'for talking about programmes to remedy problems rather than the problems themselves', and his programme for giving all Scotland's 387 stations long overdue facelifts. As one observer said at the time: 'It is not so much that he is doing it, but that he is getting it done quickly. Within BR, that is a small revolution.' His innovations included a revolutionary system for replacing the traditional 'token' system for controlling trains on single-track lines with radios in the cabs of the trains. But he did not hog the limelight, giving far more freedom to his line managers than they had been used to.

Early in 1986, he was brought south to take up what seemed at the time to be the poisoned chalice of running Network SouthEast, the newly formed web of commuter lines around London. 'We have half BR's passenger business so it's tough by definition,' he said at the time. 'We certainly have the most demanding passengers in our sector.' But again he was lucky. The trains were falling apart, but buoyant revenues enabled the 'first' Sir Bob to get substantial government money to buy new rolling stock.

As usual with Green, his regime saw a mixture of real improvements and glitzy mission statements. He instituted Operation Pride, a three- stage plan to improve the quality of service while reducing the level of government subsidy. The second stage involved the recruitment of 1,700 new staff - carriage cleaners, booking clerks, train crews and staff for the telephone inquiry bureaux. But perhaps the best single example of Green the realist-cum-image builder came in with his introduction of a new colour scheme: 'The bright colours will be a signal to people that things are changing.'

He also oversaw the biggest investment programme in 40 years, including the resignalling of hundreds of miles of lines and the introduction - usually without too many snags - of hundreds of new trains through the system. After his departure, however, the Treasury clamped down on the last stages of the programme.

But this was after he had transferred to InterCity, the pounds 1bn turnover business that is the only long-distance passenger service in the world to cover its costs (including interest charges) and make a profit, although this has been pretty notional in the past couple of recession-ridden years. But the limit of the Green style has been shown since he moved. An absence of positive investment decisions severely limits his activities.

He tried hard, and successfully, to attract leisure customers to make up for lost revenue from the recession. But his initiatives will bring in a mere pounds 10m annually, against an expected pounds 50m shortfall.

Back in Scotland, Green will be confronted by the same set of problems. Indeed, privatisation will be largely irrelevant because virtually all the lines lose money, so no matter what magician is managing the system it will still require a subsidy.

As one political opponent put it: 'Every day the privatisation programme is running into fresh difficulties. Green is a long-time railwayman and a tough guy who knows what he wants and by and large gets it, but a manager can only be as good as his political environment. I think he'd rather be running InterCity within the public sector.' Unfortunately, under the Government's present proposals he doesn't have that option.

Talking to Green, you get the distinct feeling that the Government is blackmailing him. 'We're trying hard because we believe in the railway and we don't want it to go under. It may work, we have to keep positive and keep the whole network going if we can.'

(Photograph omitted)