Few will have observed Richard Brown slipping through a grey and windy Whitehall to begin his enquiry into the shortcomings of franchise re-letting.
No triumphant gallop into Dodge City for Brown. However, no one should underestimate the importance of Brown’s role or the confidence placed in him by new transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin or the DfT’s permanent secretary, Philip Rutnam – who moved to the department last April.
The Cameron administration has been badly rattled by the West Coast debacle and wants the system fixed. No blame attaches to the companies involved.
The Secretary of State said, ‘I want to make it absolutely clear that neither FirstGroup nor Virgin did anything wrong. The fault of this lies wholly and squarely with the Department for Transport. Both of those two companies acted properly on the advice that they were getting from the Department.’
McLoughlin set in motion two reviews immediately after suspending the transfer of the Virgin Trains operated West Coast Inter City franchise to FirstGroup. The first review into the Inter City West Coast fiasco itself will be run by Centrica chief executive, Sam Laidlaw and former PricewaterhouseCoopers strategy chairman, Ed Smith. They will report by the end of October.
More ominously, Brown is charged with looking deeper and longer at railway franchising. He has the unenviable task of assessing whether changes are needed in the way risk is assessed in the bidding and the evaluation process. He will report back by the end of December.
Richard Brown CBE is a career railwayman who joined British Rail as a graduate trainee after reading Philosophy at Cambridge. After a spell with Freightliner he worked in InterCity Planning.
Later he was deeply involved in BR’s brave Organising For Quality reorganisation. OFQ, distressingly mispronounced by a generation of railway cynics, saw the creation of a series of commercially successful, stand alone, businesses.
Brown moved on to head up the new Midland Main Line and Intercity Cross Country organisation. When these were split he stayed with Midland Main Line – headquartered in Derby where he lives. After a failed MBO he ran the company for National Express, the lucky franchise holder and later became commercial director of NEG itself.
I want to make it absolutely clear that neither FirstGroup nor Virgin did anything wrong. The fault of this lies wholly and squarely with the Department for Transport.
As head of NEG’s Trains Division he had oversight of a healthy portfolio of railway franchises. In 2002 he joined Eurostar as chief executive and held the post until becoming chairman in 2010. He has chaired ATOC and was created a CBE in 2007.
After ten years away from franchising – Eurostar operates under a different system – Brown is almost unique in having worked through every permutation of railways.
Colleagues predict he will prove a redoubtable George Smiley as he plumbs the mysteries of Marsham Street.
Both railway staff, franchise bidders and the minister himself will breathe a sigh of relief at having a railwayman of Brown’s pedigree at the helm of a review that could precipitate a sea change in how railways are run.