The joker. Is this the right man to run a railway?

Brian Souter, executive chairman of Stagecoach, the bus and rail giant, is fond of a joke. But his customers, who have faced random cancellations and reduced services, are unlikely to find his latest offering funny.

The transport tycoon's wit was revealed yesterday to viewers of 7 Days, a Meridian current affairs programme. In it, Stagecoach's founder and driving force was quoted as saying he was appalled by the number of complaints his new business, South West Trains, receives.

"SWT gets 40,000 complaints a year. A high proportion of those are people who obviously have nothing better to do when they get into the office in the morning than sit down and write to the company," bemoaned Mr Souter in an interview with Railway Magazine last year. "I feel like phoning their bosses and saying `Did you know this guy spends two hours a week writing to the train company? On one of our bus services in Glasgow, we only had one complaint in three years."

"We do have other ways of measuring satisfaction levels there, however ... like the number of broken windows and crew assaults."

Back in September last year the remarks may have seemed a trifle silly, today they look stupid. The train company's problems started this year. Stagecoach, which took over the line in February last year, had produced steady, if unspectacular, improvements until January, when it cut down on staff.

Stagecoach and Mr Souter are known for aggressive business tactics which have seen the company undercut competitors in the bus industry and take over no fewer than 30 rival firms.

Mr Souter rarely recognises the picture so frequently painted. A member of the evangelical Church of Nazarene who neither smokes nor drinks and often opens his rambling mansion and estate, Ochtertyre, in Highlands, to disadvantaged local children, Mr Souter is frequently hurt by press profiles.

Often attending bankers meetings in a red jacket, Kickers boots, a collarless shirt with only a Tesco bag for his belongings, Mr Souter's exterior belies his sharp mind. His wit is his most disarming weapon. "People say to me: Yours is a classic tale of rags to riches, Brian ... how come you're still wearing the rags?" is a favourite Souterism.

SWT cut 70 drivers from its workforce. While this left the company with 13 more drivers than British Rail's minimum requirement, many had to learn new routes. Faced with a shortage of experienced staff, SWT started randomly cancelling trains. In February, it was forced to implement an emergency timetable, wiping 39 trains from its daily schedule. SWT now looks likely to get a pounds 1m government fine for poor performance. Stagecoach may even lose the right to run SWT if services do not improve.

The company is clearly rattled. In a letter released yesterday to local MPs, Brian Cox, chairman of SWT, said the company had only one aim, "to improve the service to the passenger".

He points out that some of the problems are because of "non co-operation from a minority of drivers, especially in the London area ... This has manifested itself in higher than normal absence levels and a failure to agree local rosters."

The Government has also been targeted. Last September, Mr Souter sang a ditty to the tune of "Teddy Bears' Picnic" which taunted ministers who had privately complained about his pounds 900m takeover of Porterbrook, which owns a third of the nation's train fleet. With passengers baying for blood and Stagecoach's shares down 15 per cent on January's price, the joke this time may be on him.

Claims that the national rail- inquiries service is to be broken up and scrapped were denied yesterday by senior railway sources.

The Sunday Times carried the story on its front page yesterday claiming that the system could not cope with the large number of calls. "It is rubbish," said the director of a large train company and member of Atoc, the industry body which runs the telephone service.

Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, disagreed with the report. "We have just introduced a new national number to make it easier for people to find out train times around the country.

"Under the old system, one in three calls weren't even answered."

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