Obituary: Sir Robert Reid

Robert Basil Reid, railwayman: born 7 February 1921; General Manager, Southern Region, British Rail 1974-76, Executive Member for Marketing, British Railways Board 1977-80, Chief Executive (Railways) 1980-83, Vice-Chairman 1983, Chairman 1983- 90; CBE 1980; Kt 1985; Chairman, West Lambeth Health Authority 1990- 93; married 1951 Isobel McLachlan (died 1976; one son, one daughter); died 17 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?'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy