An appreciation from Phil Marsh.
Sir Robert Horton died on December 30 2011 aged 72 and I’ll wager that 99.9% of people reading this will not appreciate just how much the rail charter industry owes to him.
He was often vilified as a difficult person to work with in British Petroleum (BP) and Railtrack, but I had the pleasure of doing just this from 1994 for a couple of years while the Railtrack Passenger Marketing Manager.
I first met him, trembling with nerves (fear actually!) it has to be said, two days before Railtrack went live on April 1 1994 in my role as Commercial Manager at Euston. I was detailed to be his chaperone and to organise a day escorting him around Euston station and to take him to one of my former stations, Watford Junction and back, outwards on the DC Line and back on fast service.
We were accompanied by a couple of journalists, one a newspaper reporter and the other from national BBC radio and was under instruction not to be controversial. This was a tricky instruction to comply with as I was not particularly a fan of privatisation having after working over 20 years for British Rail at the time.
Bob Horton was the Railtrack Chairman-elect and Vice Chairman of BR, as he was then, arrived, news was paged to me that the train service was suspended out of Euston so I’d have to forget the Watford Junction visit and ‘wing it’ for his visit.
The media interviews and photos were taken carefully avoiding the crowds, delay and cancellation notices and then we were left with over an hour to kill after the journalists had left and invited me to ask him anything I wanted. The instant decision was to discuss railway pensions and the free and privilege travel that railway staff enjoyed.
I asked him his views on the pension scheme and he said that he was a Pension Fund Trustee and was well aware of how vital Pensions were to everyone. I warmed to him when he said that he had read up on the railway pension scheme, but had had to wrap a cold wet towel round his head to focus his attention on the subject, but he re-assured me that no changes were envisaged and that the concern had been noted.
Emboldened by this response I said that if, as was rumoured at the time, staff travel perks would be withdrawn, this would be deeply unpopular and a divisive policy. This was discussed for a while and hopefully the importance was not lost on him.
Within a few months I had been asked to take on the Passenger Marketing Manager’s grandly titled job for Railtrack. This included all charter train operations and was a turbulent time for the charter market. The InterCity Special Trains Unit was being prepared for sale and there was just one train operator, Rail Express Systems.
Charter train planning was carried out in every Railtrack Zone rather than being centralized as it is today. It was a fairly dysfunctional activity carried out very well by some planners but poorly by others. So, 48 hours before many charters ran, I was the recipient of some angry phone calls and faxes from promoters such as Cheshire Railtours demanding (quite rightly) their timings.
This was when Bob Horton helped me with a few well placed phone calls made to ‘encourage’ timing offices to provide customers with schedules. Sir Robert also allowed me to get on with companies who wanted to become train operators such as Riviera Trains, Merlin and West Coast Railways as well as promoters like Days Out Limited who were the first promoter to take advantage of the new opportunity offered by privatisation.
This tacit support meant that the Rail Regulator’s Office was happy with the way Railtrack dealt with charters under the Open Access regime and allowed the business to flourish to what it is today.
One last, but abiding memory of Bob Horton can now be told from the 1995 Christmas party at Railtrack HQ, then at 40 Bernard Street in London. In front of the assembled group, he stood on a chair and made a short speech thanking everyone for their hard work which had made it possible for the company to be floated on the London Stock Exchange on May 20 1996.
This he said very deliberately, would get the Tories off our back and allow us to manage the railways properly. There was a bit of a collective gasp at these words which were never released to the media. That I believe shows the loyalty he engendered and was fully deserved.