Who have been national treasures of transport, our equivalents of Dame Judi Dench and Sir David Attenborough? Who’ll be next?

Legendary railway pioneer Adrian Shooter was honoured with a statue at London Marylebone station last August

Last week’s memorial service for the late railway icon Adrian Shooter made me reflect on the role of genuine transport industry legends, particularly during these moribund times where ticking boxes and working within tight constraints are the norm. Fatigued by grumbling in this column, I pontificated on more positive matters and remembered that the good folk outnumber the cads and over my lifetime there have been other Shooters who we should be lionising. Who have been the other national treasures of transport, our equivalents of Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough or Sir Trevor McDonald, for instance?

Sadly, I never really knew Adrian well, though I had been in a few meetings with him. I’m sure, had our paths crossed properly, we’d have got on well – he struck me as more of a legend for being an entrepreneur, a challenger, entertainer and innovator, not one of those dullard sycophants who just follow the crowd. Legends for me are larger than life and that’s what he was, alongside others who fall into this category.

Let’s start though with the bus sector and it’s easy to romanticise the stories of Sir Moir Lockhead and Sir Brian Souter, sniffing a big opportunity at the time of deregulation and creating vast empires, but also being philanthropic in the process. History has shown they were not just unprecedented but very much ‘one-offs’. Transport owning groups are now fully developed and run, machine-like, with CEOs and divisional MDs coming and going, almost as if it’s just a job. There’s little, if any scope, for another Lockhead or Souter to carve out something big. In the case of those who worked for them, they left an indelible impact on their lives and although they both had different management styles.

The post-deregulation period was a fertile ground for entrepreneurial leaders, but also for those who had an eye for detail and got their hands dirty in a way that became characteristic of the bus sector, in particular. Chris Moyes, whose life was cut short so tragically, had such an impact, along with Trevor Smallwood and Giles Fearnley. The latter made his name at Blazefield and then catapulted himself into rail by founding Prism Rail, selling it to National Express, and then, among other roles, spending just under a decade at First Bus.

Big names abounded back then and maybe I’ve always been one to be in awe of the stars, but there seemed to be more transport household names. I recall as a 28 year old being interviewed at the Strategic Rail Authority and, as part of a presentation I had to prepare, I brought in, as props, an N Gauge Wales and West Class 158 and some track from my model railway. I impersonated their supremo Giles Fearnley to answer the exam question around how private companies could be contract managed but also have a great impact on the industry. I’d never met the bloke but he was a hero from a distance and if you would have said 24 years later he would be a business partner in my consultancy venture, I’d have called for the men in white coats to take me away. He was also my lucky mascot, as the interview went well and I got the job!

The characteristics of legends … tend to be similar in that they are seen as national treasures because they tend to be grounded, dignified and affable. Throughout their career they would diligently answer letters, phone calls or emails from those of us who might consider ourselves to be plebs

The characteristics of legends, such as Fearnley, tend to be similar in that they are seen as national treasures because they tend to be grounded, dignified and affable. Throughout their career they would diligently answer letters, phone calls or emails from those of us who might consider ourselves to be plebs, and would always give up their time to coach, mentor or just give avuncular support. They’d also be high profile on the conference and seminar scene, not because they’d use it as a microphone to self-promote, but as observers in the crowd, to learn, network and be approachable to others. They wanted to be there because they had a genuine interest in the transport sector and it coursed through their veins.

Thankfully, it’s not a totally barren landscape devoid of modern day heroes. There are a few who are on the trajectory to be lionised nostalgically once their time is up. Have you ever heard anyone say a bad word about
Go-Ahead’s Martin Dean? I kid you not, I never have – not a single whispering of anything but unbridled positivity about transport’s ultimate, decent bloke. Deano, who has split his career between bus and rail, has more roles than Greggs the bakers – he currently oversees Go-Ahead’s regional bus businesses, is chair of Edinburgh Trams, CPT England and Wales and a director of Traveline. He is one of the most knowledgeable transport professionals of his generation and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of transport businesses and routes past and present and is also incredibly approachable, empathetic and caring. The only flaw in his ointment is his obsession with Watford FC, but then, I guess, even deities have skeletons in their closet.

Watch-out, meanwhile, for Deano’s boss, Christian Schreyer, who, I predict, will take the industry by storm and we’ll be talking about in years to come. He strikes me as one of the most knowledgeable and astute transport professionals around, with a global lens and experience that is second to none.

The bus sector is fortunate to be well populated with industry professionals who understand that it is all about serving local markets. They make it their place to ensconce themselves on a micro level in the complexities of these markets. The knowledge they have accumulated over the years is gold dust and newcomers to the sector, some who may be just passing through, would do well to appreciate that when they diss these folk as quirky, mavericks or bus spotter types, out of touch with the modern world and consumer trends.

They are holding it altogether during adversity and my fear is that in some parts of the bus industry, the beleaguered bus experts of old feel that their experience is being traduced because it’s unfashionable.

As part of creating Great Scenic Journeys (www.greatscenicjourneys.co.uk – hint hint), I have been more actively involved than ever before with bus company folk and in doing so, been overwhelmed by their expertise and unstinting commitment to the cause. Although they aren’t on a UK-wide stage currently, in the way that some other contemporary legends or those of yesteryear were, the likes of Paul Lynch, Paul Matthews, Marc Reddy, Andrew Wickham, Rob Jones, Douglas Robertson, Matt Kitchin, Matt Cranwell, Robert Williams, Ben Gilligan, Simon Goff, Ben Wakerley – I could go on – they are the heartbeat of this industry, the glue keeping it all together through thick and thin – tomorrow’s James Freeman, Roger French or Les Warneford.

Then, of course, there are others, traditionally from the supplier and industry body ranks, who I’d have on the legends list. Cat-loving Ray Stenning would be a cert on the team sheet for the way in which he made us all think differently about how we present our customer service proposition – and he did it in an outspoken and engaging way that made us rebels purr but would have caused many a poor, hapless transport CEO wince uncomfortably. Where Ray was opening our eyes to brand and customer satisfaction before its time, so too Claire Haigh, of Greener Journeys was focusing our attention on sustainability while outgoing Transport Focus CEO Anthony Smith was keeping transport operators on their toes, backed up with research and insights.

Cerebral Chris Cheek is up with the greats too. He’s transport’s very own Google, with his instant access to any statistic relating to market dynamics old, new and future, all of which he will have analysed in copious detail, continues to contribute infinitely to the sector.

In hoity-toity rail, where industry professionals enjoy nothing better than congratulating themselves and each other on a job well done, despite performance indicators suggesting otherwise, legends can be found, current and in the past. When I was growing up as a kid and in the early stages of my career, proper heroes and big personalities abounded – Sir Bob Reid the second, Gordon Pettitt, John Nelson, Chris Green and Dick Fearn, to name but a few. I have had the pleasure of working with Nelson and in more recent years Fearn and their reputations were garnered not least because they did fine jobs, but also due to their ‘down to earth’, approachable demeanour, able to hit it off and make time for the depot cleaner or divisional CEO. Chris Green too – a thoroughly decent chap who, alongside former Crystal Palace FC manager Steve Coppell, was my hero during my formative years.

This generation passed on their wisdom and tuteleage to those behind them, the likes of Sir Michael Holden and David Franks – whom I have had the privilege to work for. Not too many years behind is Andrew Haines, who, alongside charismatic Lord Hendy of Richmond Hill (in many respects, the ultimate multi-modal, multi-functional, entrepreneurial and corporate transport professional) has led the transformation of Network Rail and creation of Great British Railways. In Hendy and Haines, there’s a feeling of becalming, reassurance that Network Rail’s in good hands and the legacy of poor senior leadership and dating way back to the early beginnings of Railtrack has been consigned to history.

A word too for the Department for Transport’s passionate Pete Wilkinson who, in the darkest days for the franchised industry, including during Covid, played a lead role in keeping the show on the road.

In the TOC community currently, with maybe the odd isolated exception, there are, believe it or not, less egotistical and more grounded and experienced MDs than in previous eras. Although morale seems low, there seems more stability and longevity of senior leaders at MD level and the team-sheet is strong, with big names such as Tom Joyner, Mark Hopwood, Jan Chaudhry and David Horne, joined by talented relative newcomers on the scene and supported at divisional level in the owning groups by well-respected, savvy folk, such as Dave Kaye and David Brown.

In reflecting on legends, it did make me realise how male-dominated the transport sector really has been over the years

In reflecting on legends, it did make me realise how male-dominated the transport sector really has been over the years. That’s not to say there haven’t been huge contributors and heroines. Diane Crowther, Nicola Shaw and Charlene Wallace, who sadly passed away recently, are three such examples of massively respected and inspirational leaders, but history shows that there have been too few women commanding senior roles. That Stagecoach and First Group’s bus divisions are now headed by impressive female leaders (Carla Stockton-Jones and Janette Bell respectively) is encouraging and hopefully in years to come, we’ll be talking about their legacies in transport, just as there are more women than ever before rising through the ranks across all modes and on the cusp of great things.

The next five years are going to be so critical for the transport industry, with the transition to Great British Railways alongside the continuous need for the bus and coach sectors to modernise and remain relevant. The future is on a knife-edge and could irreversibly go either way. We’re going to need to draw on the inspiration of heroes present and past, more than ever before.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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