Five things I learnt as a three term member of Network Rail

I was one of the original Network Rail members and have served three terms in total (though I haven’t been a member throughout NR’s existance). My Membership comes to an end on the 23rd November

This is what I have learned

 

railway tracks1. It’s a tough job but a worthwhile one – and not – repeat not – a waste of time.

It’s tough because it is secondary governance – there to give a strategic steer and a nudge, or more than that if things are going badly wrong. It’s tough because the Network Rail job is largely a practical and technical one. It doesn’t determine national rail policy (that would be much easier to have a view on), its main job is to build, maintain and operate kit which could kill people if the wrong decisions are taken. It’s tough to judge how well they are doing in any kind of detail given the technical and practical nature of the vast job that NR does. NR pays consultants to say they are doing a good job, ORR pays consultants to say they aren’t. Who’s right? Getting to the bottom of everything would be a full time job – and NR governance is part time. But the job is worthwhile. Britain’s railways are an amazing thing – and as a Member of Network Rail you get to play a part. A small but an important part. Which is why secondary governance is not a waste of time. ‘What can the Members do that NR will take any notice of?’ people wail! ‘The members are pointless!’ Not so. NR members have a nuclear option – sacking the executive. ‘So what?’ people say, ‘it’s too drastic a deterrent for it ever to be used’.  Well nuclear weapons were not used in the cold war but they certainly influenced behaviour! And NR members have influenced behaviour on safety and the management of the company (the RIDDOR affair) and on the bonus culture. And that’s the job – not running the company – but acting as a trustee of the company.

2. Value the informed mavericks.

In my three terms as an NR member the most effective members have been Bob Rixham (who skilfully used his membership to surface the RIDDOR scandal) and Tony Berkeley. I fear a smaller membership recruited by the Membership Selection Panel (with all its PLC corporate governance theology and square mile elitist flimflam) will lead to a monoculture membership made up of Home Counties FT readers with time on their hands. And if PLC corporate governance is the gold standard that we are all told we can only begin to dream of emulating, how come the banks were allowed to run riot and crash the global economy? No – what the membership needs is not self-regarding, group think. Instead it needs to be balanced, made up of people with different perspectives and life experience. And it needs mavericks.

3. Members shouldn’t waste time naval gazing about the nature of the job, and dreaming about what you would like the job to be.

The governance of Network Rail (and the rest of the railway) only changes when Government wants it to – not the members. If you want to manage Network Rail then get a job with them. The Members are secondary governance. Not shadow managers. They are also individuals who are there to exercise their individual judgement (informed by discussions between themselves and with Network Rail). There is nothing shameful about not having a collective view (see above). And remember there is no perfect governance system – for all NR’s imperfections, overall it’s done a good job since it was created. And its governance is better than if it were a PLC (I call Railtrack to the witness box your honour) or fully nationalised (if it were to be at the beck and call of a desiccated and cynical civil service culture as BR was).

4. No-one seems to be paying much attention to this but NR wants to turn itself into a global player (and perhaps then privatised) off the back of its role in running the UK rail network.

Exciting stuff for its senior staff no doubt. Mixing it with DB and the French in the race for world domination of the public transport sector. But I’m not sure the members have been consulted on this key strategic development. And personally I think NR’s main focus should continue to be consolidating the GB rail network in a more cost effective, accountable and integrated way than the current costly shambles that is the privatised railway. That’s a big enough and exciting enough job in itself and it’s what the taxpayer pays Network Rail to do.

5. Administrative hygiene.

Network Rail needs to get the basics right. Minutes of meetings, papers circulated in advance, questions responded to in a timely fashion. Members are paranoid enough as it is about how seriously they are taken by Network Rail. If NR consistently fails on basic administrative hygiene (which it did throughout my three terms of membership – despite a lot of promises) then Members become more convinced that they are being treated disrespectfully. And people really hate that! I am convinced that half of the endless naval gazing about the Members’ roles that dominates so many NR members meetings would disappear if NR consistently got the basics right in terms of proper administrative support for the members.

Thank you and good night!

Jonathan Bray

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