Profile: Tough of the track: Robert Horton - Cal McCrystal on the thwarted politician charged with keeping Railtrack out of the sidings

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The Independent Online
WHO shall we blame for last week's disruption on the railways? The signal staff who walked out, forcing commuters on to clogged roads or to stay at home? Or the Government, which many believe sabotaged a pay deal it thought inflationary? Or was it Robert Horton, chairman of Railtrack, the signallers' boss, so often accused in the past of 'almighty arrogance'?

Last week's 24-hour strike must have shocked Horton as much as it did the customers. Yet from his side of the tracks, the signal was insouciance: a holiday in France begun just before the strike occurred and resumed before it ended. 'I think I'm perfectly capable of sorting it out,' he said, heading south even as the prospect of further strikes loomed.

Horton is used to shocks, but seems to recover from them quickly. Falling into the Kennet, a Thames tributary, at the age of four, he would surely have drowned but for the fact that Alan Caiger-Smith, then 13, swam by. 'I thought it was a dead dog,' Caiger-Smith, a distinguished Aldermaston potter, recalls. 'I deposited him on the bank. He has been a good friend and appreciative patron ever since.' Far from becoming hydrophobic, Horton loves the river, maintaining a country home near the scene of the childhood trauma.

Twenty years later, his new wife Sally Wells, a maths teacher, floored him by saying: 'Look] I know, darling, you have set your eyes on a political career, but I simply can't stand it, I'm afraid.' He dusted himself down and, as he now recalls, 'said to myself, 'This is a rum way to start married life; it really would be better to concentrate on business'.'

By then he had been four years with British Petroleum. He eventually reached the top, only to be ousted two years later as chairman and chief executive in a 1992 boardroom coup. 'Not a lot goes through your mind,' he says, 'except, 'What went wrong?' ' He considered his options: more of the same in America or Europe, or 'to put something back in one's country, in education, the health service or transportation.' The Government prompted him to choose railways: specifically Railtrack, the government-owned company, scheduled for privatisation, whose tracks - formerly British Rail's - the privatised train operators will pay to use.

It is possible he thought the signallers' dispute had been sorted out. 'My guess is that Rob was in favour of making a large and generous pay offer to the signalmen because he wanted the thing to get off to a good start,' says Michael Screech, a Berkshire riverside neighbour whom Horton describes as his 'closest' friend. 'The Government does seem to have intervened and said 'Hey]' '

Screech, a senior research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, is a Horton confidante. But when the suggestion of last-minute government intervention is raised, Horton says only: 'The Government made it perfectly clear last September what its general philosophy on pay was: that is to say, it wanted to keep a downward push on inflation, and I would have been crazy not to have understood precisely what they meant. So when I was faced with a proposal for what would essentially be an inflationary claim - money up front for something they hadn't delivered, then I had no option but to say 'This is crazy; we can't do this.' ' .

'He has always believed that the right relationship between business and government is a positive one,' says Screech. 'He would work as well with a Labour government as with a Tory one.'

ROBERT Baynes Horton is a politician to his marrow. 'He could have been a top-level political leader,' says a former BP America colleague. As a student at St Andrew's University, Horton predicted that he would become either prime minister or chairman of BP. 'I don't actually recall ever saying it,' he says. But Michael Screech believes Horton did say it, 'with a kind of smile behind it'. What the Railtrack chairman says now is: 'I hope and trust that I have political skills that are slightly above average. That sounds pompous, but I understand political life . . . I'm probably vain enough to think I might have made it to the Cabinet.'

When Horton speaks, his chin juts aggressively, while a section of the upper lip curves stiffly upward over a small, determined mouth. The overall impression may indeed be one of arrogance, particularly if he is saying, as he did to Forbes magazine in 1992: 'Because I am blessed by my good brain I tend to get to the right answer rather quicker and more often than most people.' But last week he spoke highly of others: his headmaster at King's School, Canterbury; Sir John Harvey-Jones - 'a terrific guy. I wish I'd been as successful in straight-talking.'

HE WAS born in August 1939, the son of William Harold Horton (who died of a heart attack when Horton was a young man) and Dorothy Horton (nee Baynes) who is still alive. 'He didn't have a silver spoon in his mouth,' Screech says, though his parents were quite well off. But a year after taking his degree in mechanical engineering in 1959, he was at BP and on the way to a fortune. On departure three decades later (payoff pounds 1.5m), 'I thought to myself, actually I'm one of those curious people who really don't, er, want for money.'

He gets upset by references to 'Hatchet Horton,' a soubriquet with origins in the mid-Seventies, when he won permission from senior BP management to sell more than half the tanker fleet. A few years later, as chief of BP's chemicals unit, he laid off nearly 60 per cent of the work force. His zeal in 'getting that cost base down, down, down, and profits up, up, up' (his words) was also obvious after his arrival in Cleveland, Ohio in 1986 to run BP's American operations, including the dilapidated Standard Oil Co. Hundreds of jobs were cut. Returning to London as BP chairman, he began excising layers of middle management.

Cleveland remembers Horton with affection. To explain his rescue plan for Standard Oil, he held 50 town-hall meetings with employees, and succeeded, after two years, in pushing BP America into a dollars 564m profit. He helped organise a special education programme for Cleveland's blacks - with jobs at the end - and patronised the city's arts. Because the Englishman decided not to move Standard Oil to Texas (as had been feared), Cleveland named a day in January 'Robert B Horton Day'. 'I am going to miss him,' lamented Mayor George Voinovich, when Horton left town.

Does the ex-oilman know about trains? 'I went to school by train,' he says, 'and commuted by train for 25 years into London from the Thames Valley . . . But I wouldn't describe myself as a railway buff.' So why is he now a railwayman? Michael Screech says: 'He believes he has something to offer as a public service. I mean, he's utterly converted to making the railways a prosperous and successful venture, partly on environmental grounds.'

'It would be extraordinary if someone who was chairman of an oil company was anti-car,' Horton says. 'But I'm very pro-environment, and it would be my ambition to greatly increase the number of passengers using trains and the volume of freight, rather than have it lumbering through our villages.' But first, the signalling has to be modernised - both in equipment and in working attitudes, he says.

Does that mean clobbering the unions? 'I had a very interesting teacher at university who, though a Tory, was passionately in favour of the role of trades unions. He had quite an influence on me really, so I have never been an anti-union person. People have a total right to be represented in whatever way they wish.'

Horton's politics began at university also. He was chairman of the Unionist Association and a keen Tory debater, coming up against 'the likes of John Smith and Donald Dewar'. However, asked whether Horton was a formidable opponent, Labour's social security spokesman pauses in some embarrassment. 'Oh dear,' he says, 'I would not claim to know him. But that is no criticism of him.' Sally Horton is described by aquaintances as 'a strong supportive wife who does not, however, kowtow to him'. Their son Simon is a freelance photographer (he took the above photo), with work showing at the National Portrait Gallery; their daughter Ruth works at a school in the New Forest. Increasingly, he cherishes opportunities for long walks and reading (Trollope went with him to France); he is founder-chairman of Business in the Arts.

This enormous drive is what Sir John Harvey-Jones admires in Horton. 'Eighty per cent of his problem is style - a bit like (the BBC director-general) John Birt. People would go through hell for him if they believed he respected and wanted to help them. That's why he cut a swathe in the States. People there accept economic imperatives. But in Britain, they still like someone to jolly them along'. With more shocks ahead, as train drivers threaten to match Jimmy Knapp's signal staff in militancy, Horton is at his least abrasive. 'At the end of the day,' he says, 'Mr Knapp is a reasonable, sensible person, and I'm sure we can sort it out.'

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 18

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