Obituary: Sir Robert Reid
Saturday 18 December 1993
ROBERT REID was one of those rare breeds of company chairman who rose to lead an industry he genuinely loved. It was not just a job to him. Railways were his life and his hobby for more than 40 years. He took criticism of the network personally and never forgave the Conservative government for its policies, or lack of them, towards British Rail.
He cut a sombre and statesmanlike figure and could easily have passed for a senior politician or diplomat. His powers of diplomacy came in useful at BR, particularly when dealing with the militant unions NUR (National Union of Railwaymen) and Aslef (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen). His appointment in September 1983, for example, was immediately criticised by the then Aslef leader Ray Buckton. Buckton accused him of 'smashing good industrial relations'.
Reid was 62 when he succeeded Sir Peter Parker, stepping out into the limelight for the first time after a low-profile career. Such was his passion for the railways that he commuted from his home in Purley, Surrey, to London to endure the experiences of passengers. When he took over he said, 'I will be making gradual changes. I shall be looking for lower unit costs, better quality service and better value for money.'
The Government's decision to appoint him to the post was the culmination of a 36-year climb through the ranks of BR. He began as a traffic apprentice with the old London and North-Eastern Railway before nationalisation and became a member of the BR board in 1977.
A reserved man, some would say shy, he preferred his executives to do the talking. He was pleasant and charming but determined in everything he did. He was a natural winner and succeeded in persuading government to hand out huge amounts of cash when ministers were clearly anti-railway.
He once said that the 'jewel in my crown' was the pounds 306m electrification of the east-coast main line between London, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh completed in 1991. More lines were to follow, including London to Cambridge, London to Norwich and Harwich and the Hastings line in Sussex.
Always cost-conscious, Reid said he would only continue with massive cash injections 'if they are value for money and give us at least a seven per cent return'. 'I want to ensure that the railways and people in it survive in the long term,' he said. 'They will only do that if they are competitive and our prices are seen as good value for money.'
He set out to improve facilities, particularly stations, and encouraged local communities or shire counties to share schemes. More than 50 such were tackled in Cleveland alone. He refused to put proposals to government unless they had a business-like return on capital.
Customer care and safety were his priorities and he had an obsession with staff looking clean and presentable. He explained: 'Staff are looking much smarter and cleaner. It's nothing to do with charm schools. It's dealing with selling your business in a way the customer will find acceptable.'
He was not happy with the way the rail unions supported the miners in their 1984 strike, pointing out that millions of pounds' worth of business was lost to the roads forever. He took credit for putting the industry in 'good heart and pointing in the right direction. We know where we are going and it's just go like hell for it.'
Reid's one disappointment before retirement was that relations with the unions had not improved and before he retired in March 1990 he launched a strong attack on the Government over its attitude. He warned that congestion would 'begin to strangle us all' unless money was found for key projects and forecast that without extra rail capacity Britain would lose out to either France or Belgium in the race to become the transport capital of Europe.
He called on the Government to treat the network according to its importance to the nation rather than its financial value and wanted no repeats of the Clapham disaster.
He said safety must be 'top of the agenda': the only answer was high standards, efficient systems and constant vigilance.
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