Tuesday, 18 September 2007

All change

It was probably always bound to happen; it was only a matter of time. After weeks of speculation and rumour, First Group this afternoon confirmed that Alison Forster, Managing Director of First Great Western since early 2004, is to move to a new position within the group.

It is all too easy to associate the problems of FGW with Alison Forster; after all, many of them did occur on her watch. But to do so is both disingenuous and represents a misreading of the truth.

Ms Forster was neither the architect of, nor an advocate for, so many of the issues Great Western passengers face today. And neither did she possess the full range of powers to resolve them. As has been written on this site so many times before, the shape and design of the franchise – which was determined by the Department for Transport – is simply not configured to deliver what the passenger wants. That is something that was always wholly out of Ms Forster’s hands.

Certainly Ms Forster and her team, by their own admission, did make some errors of judgement. But where they did, they took responsibility for them and promised to put things right. As inadequate as this may be, it is refreshingly honest.

If frankness is one hallmark of Ms Forster, experience is another. Having worked on the Great Western network, in one capacity or another, since 1980 she has an intricate knowledge of the region and its rail operation. She also has a solid track record of competence and dedication. It was Alison Forster who, no less than three times, wrote to Railtrack before the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster to warn them that Signal 109 was repeatedly being passed on red and that it posed a threat to rail safety. Her warnings were ignored. Had they been followed up, the Ladbroke Grove crash would probably never have happened.

Ms Forster has also been an extremely visible Managing Director. She corresponds with members of the public over their concerns; she regularly travels on her own trains; and, when out and about, she wears her badge at all times so passengers can come and talk – or complain – to her. Despite the sometimes hostile reception she subjected herself to, she has never been afraid to stick her head above the parapet.

Ms Forster’s move deprives First Great Western of this talent. It will also dismay many staff who, despite the troubles, genuinely admire Ms Forster for the competent railway professional she is.

It would be wrong of anyone to think that Ms Forster’s removal as MD will, of itself, solve the problems of FGW. It won’t. While it is almost certain that things will start to get better – if only because lessons have been learned and planned capacity and infrastructure improvements will begin to come on stream – these are things that would have happened with, or without Ms Forster’s departure. If the move has little to do with improvement, it has everything to do with good public relations.

Lamenting the loss of Ms Forster as head of FGW is not to discredit the incoming MD, if that is indeed to be his title, Andrew Haines. He is, according to those who have worked with him, a safe pair of hands with an excellent track record. It is important that the media and passengers give him a fair chance before judging him. The railway is a long term game and even with the best will in the world, Mr Haines will not be able to sort out every issue within his control on day one.

Change, JFK once said, is the law of life. And so it is. There is no reason, emotional nor rational, why a managing director of company should remain in their post for life. People move on and things evolve.

Nevertheless, on a personal note, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness at the departure of Alison Forster as head of the FGW railway. I liked her quiet optimism; I liked her can do attitude; I liked her willingness to engage; I liked her professionalism. And I will miss her when she’s gone.