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"How to be respectable and radical at the same time in transport" by Professor Paul Salveson, The Railway Doctor: Edinburgh meeting of Tuesday 8 January 2013

People tend to start radical, then compromise: not many go the other way. From a Labour-voting family because everyone did that in his part of Bolton, Paul was always radical in some sense, but the nature of his radicalism has changed and his politics have been driven by his interest in railways, which has been the big and lasting influence on his life : for while of course he espoused an interest in integrated and sustainable transport policies, it was really railways that turned him on.

It all started with his little teenage campaign to avert the closure of Lostock Junction Station which came too late for him to be able to do more than mark the calling of the last train with detonators and fireworks. Unfortunately these were set off by the preceding late-running Glasgow-Manchester express than which he had never seen a train stop quicker, and by the time the last train came the only sounds were of police sirens in the distance. Thankfully the mainline platforms at Lostock were to reopen 21 years later.

Graduating from Lancaster in sociology and history, Paul took up various left-wing causes while employed at Horwich Works, which put him off hard labour for life. Working as a guard at Blackburn on the Settle & Carlisle provided much more variety than today, and proved to be a more important influence than university through contacts with such people as RMT number 2 Fred Cannon who advised "you've got to run with the ball" and Jock Nicolson who though a lowly porter at St Pancras married an East German woman and was feted in 1970s East Berlin.

Leaving BR in 1980, Paul went into trade union education where he helped make progress on getting to the grass roots in community development, devising better consultative mechanisms for the Greater Manchester PTE in the realisation that the traditional terms of debate had failed and now you had to take people with you, identifying sympathetic politicians from all parties and encouraging managers to engage with community organisations representing women, the disabled and ethnic minorities.

When John Major overcame the Conservatives' reluctance under Thatcher to privatise the railways, a small group came up with short-term objectives and a long-term strategy for community railways at the libertarian end of the political spectrum which with BR's acceptance and the support of the English Development Commission led to the birth of the pioneering Penistone Line Partnership in 1993.

Quick returns were achieved on the short-term objectives and people quickly began to apply lessons, though the long-term strategy of communities running their own railways as in Germany and Switzerland was made very difficult by the legislation - and microfranchising is an idea whose time has maybe now passed.

Community Rail filled the vacuum left by the demise of BR, and unlike its Community Unit was not in anyone's pocket so could build up relations with key people in the franchising process. Paul's mum would never have forgiven him if he had refused his MBE, which he sees as a recognition for Community Rail.

It seems to him that the choice is between accepting the world as it is, seeking revolutionary transformation or pushing for change in an organic way as being the best way of taking people with you. Never a fan of leftie control stuff, Paul has found that in the absence of Labour majorities the name of the game becomes working together, being clear as to one's long-term objectives but working with allies - often the people that one might not have thought supportive - to seize opportunities, use the media and exploit government initiatives.

Having worked in both BR and the privatised railway, Paul's view now is that privatisation hasn't worked so he has advised the Cooperative Party on a not for profit model for the railway in Wales. He has no enthusiasm for bringing back BR which would be incredibly difficult in today's devolved Britain, and is now involved in moves to create an North of England-based executive who would be responsible for the Northern and Trans Pennine franchises.

Being distrustful of the state is part of the libertarian tradition. Community Rail Partnerships are not tied to a centralised state, and the most successful parts of the modern railway such as Chiltern, Merseyrail and ScotRail are those which are closest to what people want. Geography and culture are different in Scotland, where Community Rail could more radical than in England, but everywhere it requires a substantial management resource if it is successfully to "join up the dots" of local initiatives such as station adoptions.

The Scottish Region thanks Edinburgh City Council for hosting the event.

Report by John Yellowlees.


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