Dear Fat Controller: as you reorganise the nation’s railways, please remember I’m a passenger, not a customer.

Hornby back in profit: should Britain's most profitable train company be given the franchise to run the whole network?

Bernard Trafford hopes that reforms to the rail network might bring a reduction in silly titles and management gobbledegook.

Railways have been in the news recently. No, not Michael Portillo traversing the network in increasingly garish outfits, but new Hitachi high-speed trains pulled out of service after cracks were found.

Next came the government announcement, of which more below.

More satisfying was the news that Hornby Trains, iconic manufacturer of model trains for a century and etched in countless childhood memories, has returned to profit after some 12 years of catastrophic losses.

Whence came this rare silver lining amid the dark clouds of Covid? Did hosts of locked-down middle-aged men fulfil a long-mooted but never acted-upon plan to build model layouts in their roof-spaces? Or have children rediscovered a charming toy out of fashion for decades?

Whatever the truth, satirical news quiz Have I got news for you? took to Twitter with the mischievous suggestion that, as the only profitable train company in Britain, Hornby should be granted the franchise to operate the country’s rail system.

Too late. Government’s re-nationalising it: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps proudly announced that Great British Railways will take over running the entire rail network in 2023.

So startling a move was previously unthinkable. Tory regimes are usually all about private enterprise (and, opponents might add, bunging lucrative contracts to ministers’ mates). On the other hand, the idea was one element of Jeremy Corbyn’s lamentable 2019 election campaign that caught the public imagination: and this populist government is swift to hijack bandwagons once rolling.

It might just work.  When, in 2009, East Coast, a subsidiary of National Express, threatened to default on the terms of its franchise, Lord Adonis sacked it and ran the line himself.  It was retendered and went to Virgin in 2015, but that failed too, and now it’s back under government control.

In homage to the fictional director of Thomas the Tank Engine’s timeless railway set on the island of Sodor by author Rev W Awdry, countless newspaper columnists dubbed the Transport Minister the new Fat Controller,

That was frustrating to me, because I was planning to make the same joke with the semi-serious plea to said corpulent boss to encourage his new trainset (or its management) to stop calling travellers customers and revert to passengers, which describes more specifically and accurately what they (we) are. Moreover, my generation still thinks of the uniformed personage in charge of the train as the guard: I cannot bring myself to refer to the customer service manager (I know: sadly, that does describe the job more accurately).

Recent letters to The Times have listed other daft titles foisted on rail staff: ticket clerks became operatives, then advisers: on the Great Western Railway (Isambard Kingdom Brunel presumably turning in his grave), they’re now customer ambassadors.

If such facile corporate managementalism has wrought havoc on the railways, prisons have had it worse. According to The Times last month, prisons minister Alex Chalk has ordered prison staff and their bosses to call their inmates prisoners, deploring the gradual adoption of supervised individual, service users or even clients.

It’s a sign of the times. When leadership (maybe as opposed to management) fails, pretentious, meaningless gobbledegook grows like weeds to choke effective communication. The prison service offers a fine example: so does the Church of England, nowadays overflowing with managers, outreach coordinators and, of course, safeguarding officers (all justified by spectacular volumes of verbiage), while actual clergy appear thin on the ground.

My former field, education, is awash with empty jargon, emanating not least from the government department and its schools and exam regulators. A widely respected former Inspector provided this curt explanation of a recent statement on the ongoing exams fiasco: “White noise,” he said, “characteristic of failing organisations”.


I have no great hopes of the new, hopefully-not-overstated Great British Railways, but I hope its boss will respond to the plea which heads this piece, and get the guard (not the customer service manager) to refer to me as a passenger.


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