Organisational change in the railway industry since the 1980s


Speaker:Gerald Crompton, University of Kent
Date: Friday 29 November 2002
Time: 14:00
Location: Streatham Court room 221/2

Further details

The paper examines organisational change in the railway industry since the 1980s. This covers both the internal changes of the 1980s and early 1990s within British Rail, generally known as 'Sector Management' and 'Organising for Quality', and also the more radical transformation brought about by privatisation from the mid 1990s. A classic study by Dent (Accounting, Organisations and Society 1991) had analysed the development of a business culture in BR under pressure from both the market and the Thatcher government. Laughlin (Organisation Studies 1991) also saw these changes as a process of 'colonisation' of BR by a business culture. By all conventional measures, the results included substantial gains in efficiency. The aims of privatisation are discussed, and the way in which the process was justified in terms of concepts such as competition, efficiency, reduction of subsidy etc. The outcomes have shown that these arguments were not well-founded, and indeed were promoted mainly by people with little or no railway experience. The paper emphasises that privatisation cannot be seen as simply further movement along a spectrum of decentralisation and commercialisation. It was based on the rejection of principles of integrated operation which went back long before nationalisation. The shortcomings of the privatised system are attributable to this fragmentation and also to its high dependence on the monopoly infrastructure operator, Railtrack. The paper discusses the new culture of Railtrack, especially its downgrading of engineering and extreme belief in outsourcing, and the reasons for its disastrous performance and eventual dismantling. It is argued that Dent exaggerated when he stated that 'the railway (i.e. BR) quite literally has become its businesses'. This conclusion has, however, become valid since privatisation.