Obituary: Sir Robert Reid
Saturday 18 December 1993
IN THE HISTORY of railways in this country, Bob Reid probably will go down as a great commander of change, writes Sir Peter Parker. Paradoxically, change is a condition of life on the rails. In his 40 years Bob proved to be not only capable of managing change but commanding it as well. I can think of no railwayman who did more to modernise the railways - its assets and its attitudes - than this remarkable man.
I met him first in 1976. We had a flaming row - I had not taken in that part of my briefing as a new chairman which said that Bob had once had red hair and a flaming temper to match. He believed rightly that, as William Blake would say, opposition is true friendship, and sparks flew. I immediately asked his help to establish the innovation of marketing at board level in BR. He had just lost his wife, after a long illness; he told me that he was contemplating stepping out of the rail scene altogether. The country has reason to be glad that he changed his mind and stayed on. British Railways benefited hugely from his decisive temperament, masterly knowledge and the passion of his commitment to public service. But I have always felt that as a professional he ploughed a lonely furrow when he was at the peak of his career, wonderfully sustained as he was by his devoted family.
When in 1947 he joined the old London and North Eastern as a management trainee, at the moment of nationalisation, the network was clapped out. When he left it as chairman British Rail was the most successful European railway in terms of financial efficiency. In spite of a continued need for subsidy which was lower in terms of share of gross national product than any other railway, Bob Reid always recognised the need for government support which, alas, inevitably meant continuous government intervention. In his view, this intervention was to develop in recent years into the eventual demise of the railways as they had been known in Britain - a great sadness to someone dedicated to the right balance of entrepreneurial activity with a service industry supported by the state.
I never worked with a more effective colleague. Nor, I suspect, have Secretaries of State, after my time. Nicholas Ridley simply described him as 'utterly honest and quite the nicest man I've ever met'. He was a leader. His teams knew they would have all the space and support they needed if they delivered their promises. He was fierce but never vindictive. He simply did not dabble. He delivered.
My ambition on the railways was that I should be succeeded by a railwayman. Outsiders are forced on to state industries and are a clear sign of no confidence. After seven years I was immensely relieved when the decision was finally made on his appointment. He heard the news when he was on his summer walking holiday in the Alps; this was part of his annual pilgrimage to north Italy, where he would visit the family that had risked everything to help him as an escaped prisoner of war. He had fallen into the bag in North Africa and had been handed over by the Germans to the Italians, who after the 1944 armistice simply left the gates of his prison open. For the next four months he lived in a haystack, only coming out at night-time, and the family saved him. Typical of the man, he kept his links with that village - although, as he put it, 'I had a job to find the place.' He was with the third generation of the village family when the news of his elevation finally got through to him. The story symbolises the man.
He was the most private of public men. Yet when public pressure was on him cruelly in the last years of his chairmanship, with massive concern in strikes and accidents, he responded characteristically. His reaction to the Clapham disaster was memorable, old-fashioned when I think of some ways chairmen respond to disasters on this scale. He went to the scene at once, took total charge and responsibility. The clarity of his public demeanour steadied a tragic scene and restored to the railways a dignity amidst all the traumatic difficulties - now there was a man, a delightful, demanding leader with the primary qualities of courage and honour so strong in him.
It is a great pity that the business structure that he did so much to inaugurate, that has just been completed in BR, is being dismantled. He wrote to me a note not so long ago after a luncheon. He was frail and, in his words, 'fighting the demons'; in it he said: 'I reckon we had the best years, didn't we?'
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