John Welsby, costcutting chief of British Rail who expertly pared down the nationalised service ready for privatisation – obituary

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Welsby, left, and, right, John Watts, minister for railways and roads with Randy Henke, the vice president of Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp - PA/Alamy
Welsby, left, and, right, John Watts, minister for railways and roads with Randy Henke, the vice president of Wisconsin Central Transportation Corp - PA/Alamy

John Welsby, who has died aged 83, was the final chairman of British Rail as the industry was privatised, having played a vital role in raising the nationalised BR to new heights of efficiency.

Welsby was one of the very few executives to join BR from outside and progress to the top. A Whitehall economist who arrived on secondment in 1981 with a reputation for keeping costs tight, he proved a visionary strategist and a decisive manager, with strong political insight.

He became chief executive in 1990, having successfully begun the renaissance of BR’s Provincial sector – a ragbag of routes which had escaped successive waves of closures – and rationalised BR’s sprawling network of workshops as a prelude to privatisation.

As chief executive, Welsby drove through Organising for Quality, the railways’ biggest reorganisation since nationalisation in 1948. BR’s five regions were replaced with business sectors which directly employed signallers, engineers and permanent way staff.

Decision-making was devolved from Headquarters and every possible cost stripped out – so when BR was privatised, the buccaneering busmen who snapped up most of the franchises found that the economies they had counted on making were not achievable.

The unexpected re-election of John Major’s government brought further upheavals as Welsby restructured BR for privatisation. He did not oppose it, but wrote years later: “I just wish they had done it on the basis of the profit centres we had established, instead of the unfortunate model adopted.”

Welsby presided over the segregation of Railtrack and identified and trained up BR managers who could run a private sector train company. Then, as chairman from 1995, he saw privatisation through.

John Kay Welsby was born on May 26 1938, the son of Samuel and Sarah Welsby. From Heywood Grammar School in Lancashire he took a first degree at Exeter University, then a London University MSc.

Joining the Government economic service in 1966, Welsby gravitated to the Department of Transport. Sir Bob Reid, BR’s chief executive, brought him across to address a lack of rigour in BR’s justification of its investment plans. With Welsby on board, the DoT became less sceptical.

Welsby joined BR’s policy unit just as it was developing the case for reorganising the railways into business sectors, and took the concept forward with enthusiasm. When Reid complained that “my desk is the only place where costs and revenues come together and I can’t get either”, Welsby told him BR was not structured on business lines but run by barons – regional general managers – and bishops (headquarters-based functional directors).

At the start of 1982 BR introduced the new structure, with six sectors operating alongside the regions. For InterCity, London & South East, freight and the like, Reid chose his most experienced managers. But “Other Provincial Services” was highly political, given its dependence on government subsidy, so Reid chose Welsby to run it.

Welsby started with an office in London, a secretary and three staff. Provincial was responsible for one-sixth of BR’s passenger mileage, but fares covered only 24.5 per cent of costs; on some routes, costs outweighed receipts by 13:1.

Almost at once he was confronted with the Serpell Report, one of whose options involved closing four-fifths of the railway, including almost all the Provincial sector. Though ministers rejected it, the need to economise remained.

British Rail board Member John Welsby unveiling the Chunnel Link plan, circa 1989 - Alex Lentati/ANL/Shutterstock
British Rail board Member John Welsby unveiling the Chunnel Link plan, circa 1989 - Alex Lentati/ANL/Shutterstock

Welsby knew that because he was an outsider the “barons” would “go out of their way to make sure I screwed up”. He decided he could ruffle fewest feathers and make the greatest difference by tackling rolling stock.

Provincial relied on ageing diesel units crammed with asbestos, and carriages hauled by costly-to-run locomotives. Welsby identified major savings from cutting back from 4,000 to 2,500 vehicles over 10 years, bringing in new trains instead of ageing cast-offs from other sectors, and servicing them in local depots.

Crucial to his strategy were the spartan, and later derided, Pacer trains. Welsby made the case for an apparently hopeless investment by making each carriage replace two old ones, sharply reducing maintenance costs. He also saw that reducing train and axle weights could drive down the cost of maintaining the track.

Welsby persuaded the Southern Region to delay an order for electric trains so he could squeeze in the first lightweight Pacers. Introduced from 1980 with a 20-year life expectancy, they were basic – a Leyland bus on railway wheels with bicycle-style brakes – but three decades later most were still running.

Next came the less basic Sprinters, again justified by dramatic cost reductions. Operational after Welsby had moved on, they also delivered an increase in quality. This brought a surge in business that kept the last of the trains they were supposed to replace in traffic until 2003.

In 1984 Reid tasked Welsby with rationalising BR’s horrendously uneconomic workshops, from giant plants like Crewe, Swindon and Doncaster to small repair facilities. He got to grips with the situation, driving down costs and raising standards. During his tenure as director of manufacturing many workshops closed, key facilities were modernised and the surviving manufacturing sites were prepared for privatisation.

In 1987 Welsby was promoted to the BR Board. His main responsibility was to get the railways ready for the Channel Tunnel. Having insisted it could manage without a high-speed link between London and the Tunnel, BR now realised it would need one, and Welsby became caught up in arguments over its route across Kent and into the capital

Another challenge was to encourage private investment in the railways. Welsby sold the Vale of Rheidol narrow-gauge line in Wales as a going concern, and tried to do the same with the closure-threatened Settle & Carlisle, but could identify no credible takers.

Having completed Organising for Quality, Welsby found that further economies were needed to cover the impact of recession. He ordered a “maintenance holiday” across the network, but warned ministers the long-term cost and safety implications could be disastrous.

After New Labour’s landslide victory of May 1997 John Prescott instructed Welsby, now chairing the residual BR, to maintain a cadre of expertise to advise him on “more effective use of the railway system”. In 1999 a new Strategic Rail Authority under Sir Alastair Morton took over BR’s remaining functions.

Welsby stayed in the industry until 2007 as a director of London & Continental Railways, which built and operated the HS1 link to the Channel Tunnel. He was chairman of the Chartered Institute of Transport in 1998-99 and was appointed CBE in 1990.

John Welsby married Jill Richards in 1964; they had a son and a daughter.

John Welsby, born May 26 1938, died October 4 2021

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