To begin with, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s statement on Network Rail in front of Parliament this morning contained no surprises – at least not to those familiar with the works delays and escalating project costs currently plaguing the organisation. Nor was it too much of a surprise when he confirmed that current chairman Richard Parry-Jones would be leaving. What was surprising, however, was when McLoughlin casually named his successor – London’s very own long-serving Transport Commissioner, Sir Peter Hendy, who will take up post on 16th July. In that one moment the entire political landscape of London’s current transport governance changed.
Organisational failure on a grand scale
That Network Rail is a company in desperate need of new direction from the top has been clear for sometime. Readers of the latest edition of Modern Railways (July 2015) will be aware that Network Rail’s plans are basically falling apart. New projects are well behind schedule and costs appear to be way too high. Indeed although it is not said, the current works at London Bridge seem to be the high point of Network Rail’s work in progress being, as far as we are aware, both on time and on budget – but even here work has been plagued with very public problems.
It was an Office of Rail and Road report expressing “serious concerns” over the organisation which prompted a piece by Roger Ford in the aforementioned Modern Railways. What was more telling though was that the editorial spelt out just what the impact was going to be. If electrification on the Great Western were late then the very expensive new IEP trains could be sitting unused or underused. Politically, if such a thing were to happen, it would be very embarrassing indeed.
A few decades ago the state our railways nationally would not have been a major political concern. Now it most definitely is – and that is before one talks about HS2. It is clear that the government has had enough and has decided that something major has to change.
Enter Sir Peter
One can understand what might have been going through the Secretary of State’s mind. It is time for a new chairman of Network Rail. Someone familiar enough with railways and their governance to understand the issues, but distant enough not to be tainted with the current problems. This leaves a relatively small field – indeed one centred almost entirely on London.
Moreover one needs someone politically astute, something that in recent years Network Rail has appeared to be severely lacking. This has been particularly noticeable in London, thanks to occasions when both Network Rail and TfL have appeared before the Assembly. It is not uncommon in those situations for Network Rail’s representatives to seem more flustered and unprepared than their TfL colleagues – not always a fair reflection on what they actually had to say.
There are few individuals who can bring all of those elements to the table. Sir Peter Hendy is clearly one of them and, to the Government, it seems the man who should be appointed to do the job.
An enormous legacy
Sir Peter’s ability to take on the role is evidenced by the legacy he leaves behind at TfL. It is nine and a half years since Sir Peter took over as Transport Commissioner, having served as MD of Surface Transport since 2001. In that time he has steered TfL through what could have been an enormously rocky set of financial and political shoals, as both first London’s Mayoralty and then the British Government switched from left to right. Both transitions could have proven disastrous for TfL, coming at times when the organisation was already under pressure to deliver big projects (such as Crossrail) as well as save money.
Sir Peter’s tendency to be direct in the face of comment and criticism has no doubt caused TfL’s press office more than a few sleepless nights, but it has also earned him a reputation (and public profile) that has been an overall net-positive for TfL. It has also hidden an astute political compass most evidenced, perhaps, in his ability to work with Boris Johnson. The root of the New Bus for London project (NBfL) may have lain with the Mayor, but it was the Commissioner who ultimately carried it through and, whether one considers that a good or bad thing in the long run for London’s buses, it is hard now to avoid the suspicion that at least in part that commitment to NBfL helped ensure that the Mayor remained a vocal proponent of TfL’s other projects, such as Crossrail, when the threat of the incoming Coalition government’s spending review loomed back in 2010.
An Empty Throne
Whilst Sir Peter’s appointment will almost certainly be good news for Network Rail, it does raise a serious question for London – what next for TfL?
Fortunately for London, in recent years Sir Peter has tended to exhibit a more hands-off approach. This means his chief officers should be quite capable of running day-to-day things. Indeed it is Mike Brown, Managing Director (MD) of Rail, who the Mayor has asked to take on the post of Transport Commissioner in the short term until a full recruitment process can be put in place.
That full recruitment process, however, should by no means be assumed to be a formality. Brown’s temporary appointment to the role is a strong indicator of both his own credentials and desire for the post, but he is not the only individual who would likely wish to hold it for the long term.
Vernon Everitt, TfL’s current MD of Customer Experience, Marketing and Communications would perhaps be LR Tower’s suggestion of the dark horse candidate from within TfL itself, but there are plenty of outside contenders for the role as well – most notably the current Deputy Mayor for Transport Isabel Dedring. Sir Peter’s early departure has perhaps ensured that the vacancy comes too soon for Crossrail’s own potential candidates, in the likes of Terry Morgan or Andrew Wolstenholme, to consider crossing the organisational floor, but their ability to do the role effectively would be hard to doubt.
Indeed this is perhaps the one positive for London, and TfL, is that there is a wealth of candidates available who have the potential skills to do the job. Nonetheless, Sir Peter is arguably the most influential and successful transport lead that London has had since Lord Ashfield himself, and succeeding him will be no mean task. How the Mayor and TfL chose to do so will also tell us a great deal about the challenges they believe the organisation will face in the next five years.
In Sir Peter, a more-than-thirty-year busman who still owns and drives a Routemaster, it had a technocrat as its effective head – someone as versed in the reality of transport (and transport of all modes – we have looked at his subtle influence on cycling in London elsewhere). Putting someone such as Mike Brown into the top job permanently would suggest a belief that this remains the best approach for London. Appointing Dedring or Everett, meanwhile, would suggest that the challenges of politics, rather than implementation, are those they believe will be most pressing in the years to come.
All this we will no doubt look at in more detail in the coming weeks. For now, it seems best to acknowledge that London’s loss is almost certainly Britain’s wider gain. And that whilst the city can take confidence in the fact that the list of candidates who can replace him is a strong one…
…the Game of Zones has most definitely begun.