Obituary: James Urquhart CVO, rail executive

Born: 23 April, 1925, in Edinburgh. Died: 14 July 2015, in Dorset, aged 90

The dispute between the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef) – the staunchly militant drivers’ union – and British Rail management (BR) in 1982 was one of the most torrid and vindictive in an era of many such events. James Urquhart played a central part in the gruelling negotiations and was instrumental in forcing the unions to back down over a more flexible work rota. Throughout that summer the Falklands conflict raged and Margaret Thatcher was at her zenith but there was also an industrial battle on the home front. Urquhart was a passionate supporter of a publicly-owned national railway system that provided a service to both cities and remote communities. It was such a determined resolve that made him seek to preserve the traditional BR service, well aware that the industry had to modernise.

Urquhart remained a proud Scot all his life and retained a Scottish lilt in his voice. In 2008 he took his two daughters on a visit to Culloden and told them the story of the battle. Pointing out the mass graves, he told them of their clan’s contributions in the conflict. A guide overheard Urquhart and quietly informed him: “Yes, that’s right, Sir, but unfortunately the Urquharts fought with the English.”

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James Graham Urquhart was the oldest of nine children and was brought up in a tenement block in Edinburgh. The family relocated to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where he attended Berwick High School, leaving aged 15 to earn money for the family.

He got a job as a booking clerk on the railways but in 1941 he joined the RAF and trained as a navigator. He spent much of his time at RAF Birkenhead where he met Margaret Hutchinson and they married at the end of the war.

Urquhart then returned to the railways, which were nationalised by the Attlee government in 1948. He started as a traffic apprentice and was promoted to a marshalling yard superintendent at Stratford in east London in 1951.

He served as District Traffic Superintendent in Perth (1960-62) and from 1964 to 1967 was divisional manager for Glasgow and south-west of Scotland. In 1969 he joined the main BR board in London and was in charge of personnel and productivity (1977-83).

Urquhart made his mark with senior management and was one of those who organised a conference for Margaret Thatcher when she was leader of the opposition in 1969. Held at Woking, it gave Mrs Thatcher the opportunity to meet senior BR managers.

Urquhart had carefully listed on a blackboard possible discussion topics, which Mrs Thatcher immediately dismissed, saying: “Oh, you people can’t think on your feet. You can’t work out what you want, can you?” She then launched into a tirade against the chairman of BR.

Urquhart later complained about her treatment of the managers to the chairman and an apology came from Mrs Thatcher.

But it was during the strike of 1982 that Urquhart showed his mettle. As the director of British Rail responsible for personnel, he was much involved with the core issues in the dispute with Aslef and the NUR. The unions were relentless in their refusal to accept BR’s attempts to scrap the rigid eight-hour day with more flexible schedules. A two-day strike in January halted all rail services.

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During these discussions Mrs Thatcher developed her campaign to revolutionise trade union legislation, announcing in the Commons that she intended to tighten strike laws even further. She firmly believed that compulsory secret ballots would prevent industrial action – it did not help Urquhart’s negotiations.

By July Urquhart and his negotiating team faced deadlock and the railway system virtually closed down for six weeks. Backed by the BR chairman, the ebullient Sir Peter Parker, Urquhart announced that BR would close the system and dismiss any employees who refused to return to work under the new system of a seven- to nine-hour day.

Renowned for his plain-speaking, Urquhart said: “The unions have to do something about the strike. They called the strike. If Mr (Ray) Buxton (the Aslef leader) is going to be party to the crucifixion of BR he must be held responsible and I hope his members are listening.”

In truth, the unions had failed to co-ordinate their action and the strike was called off. Within months, in a drive for greater productivity, Urquhart put through plans to cut the workforce by a fifth and renegotiate the wages structure.

Urquhart was then appointed director of BR’s exports but resigned a year later to pursue non-executive directorships.

Urquhart, who was awarded the CVO in 1983, retired to Swanage in Dorset, where he was a keen golfer, gardened and enjoyed travelling. He is survived by his wife and their two daughters.