David Behrens: If bank can hold boss to account, why can't railway send a signal?

It would be hard to elicit much sympathy for Paul Pester, deposed boss of the chaotic TSB Bank, who began his 'gardening leave' on Tuesday with £1.2m in severance pay and a 'historical' bonus of around £480,000.

Paul Pester, deposed chief executive of TSB
Paul Pester, deposed chief executive of TSB

Yet his departure – by mutual consent, if you believe the chairman’s statement – following a string of technology failures that left customers unable to access their money, tells us something about the disparity in accountability between the private sector and the newly privatised public services.

If I were a TSB customer – and frankly, I’d sooner put my life savings on the 3.30 at Doncaster – I would happily join the queue to sign Dr Pester’s leaving card. The buck stops in the boardroom and it is impossible for a snafu on such a monumental scale not to require a sacrifice.

That is not to say that others should not also carry the can after weeks of 
on-off outages. I imagine that TSB’s 
IT department goes through managers at roughly the same rate as Leeds United.

The point is that in jettisoning the boss – even with the undeserved golden handshake – the board has drawn a line in the sand. It has signalled decisive action in attempting to salvage what is left of its brand’s reputation.

Compare that with what has happened on the railways since the botched introduction of a new timetable nearly four months ago. The planning failure there was on a scale that made TSB’s problems look like a smudge on the monitor – yet not a single head has fallen.

At the two companies most responsible, Network Rail and Northern Rail, entire management teams remain intact despite not being able to point to a single achievement between them that might aid their defence. What kind of signal is that?

What it signals to me is complacency, the element at the very foundation of our public services.

Northern Rail may be a private company but it retains the mindset – not to mention the staff and working practices – of the industry’s years of nationalisation. Network Rail, you will recall, had to be re-nationalised after the spectacular collapse of its predecessor, Railtrack.

The failure of anyone in a position of power to knock sense into these companies, or even make them talk constructively to each other, was demonstrated this week by two Yorkshire MPs, Kevin Hollinrake and Robert Goodwill, who released a letter that lifted the lid somewhat on the can of worms that infests the railway lines.

It was, revealed a manager at the TransPennine Express franchise, the policy of Network Rail to prioritise trains on the main line to London at the expense of east-west services across Yorkshire. This had the effect of making a trainful of spectators bound for last month’s Scarborough Cricket Festival get no further than Malton.

It was an interesting and more detailed explanation than the standard, dismissive excuse of “signalling difficulties”. TransPennine was saying that different departments within Network Rail itself did not understand the consequences of each other’s actions.

I saw something of this at first hand on Monday, on a TransPennine service from Liverpool to Leeds. It left on time but was delayed en route for exactly the type of reason the letter described: a late-running stopping train was in the way. That’s not unusual; it happens most days.

Mr Hollinrake, who has been fielding complaints all summer from disgruntled passengers, is right in wanting an urgent review of the way Network Rail and the train operators communicate with each other.

But let’s be clear: that review should institute a wholesale clearout of managers whose ineffectuality is the root cause of this summer’s chaos.

We might start with the official who claimed, in response to the MP, that its policy was to prioritise trains which are on time, not those running late – the very opposite of my experience on Monday.

With such a long and transparent history of saying one thing and doing another, it ought now to be blindingly obvious that the industry is not capable of putting its house in order. And until someone is prepared to swing a TSB-shaped axe in that direction, it never will be.