Sir David Serpell

Civil servant who became reviled as 'a second Beeching'

Born: 10 November, 1911, in Plymouth.

Died: 28 July, 2008, in Devon, aged 96.

SIR David Serpell was a highly regarded civil servant who, in retirement in 1983, produced a report reviewing the operation, financing, management and staffing of the then British Rail. At its most extreme, his report suggested reducing the UK rail system to spinal lines from London terminating in Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a track mileage of just over 1,600.

What became his infamous Serpell Report was essentially a rerun of Beeching-style closures of secondary routes, though, unlike the Beeching report of 20 years before, there were fewer obvious candidates for closure. Serpell ran into a political trap with his infamous "Table A", a version promoting axeing all but a few main lines from London, with Glasgow and Edinburgh left as mere northern outposts of a network shrunk from 11,000 miles to just 1,630.

Option A provided the weapon for political, press and public opinion to kill the whole exercise – though the report did set an unpleasant tone for the next few years, with BR cutting costs and attempting to close lines by stealth.

Serpell was the formidable Whitehall mandarin invited in 1982 by Conservative transport secretary David Howell to chair a committee on the long-term prospects of UK railways. His vast experience as a civil servant encompassed Treasury, trade, defence, nuclear weapons and railways – for in 1960 he worked in the ministry of transport involved in rail and roads, later serving Ernest Marples, commissioner of the Beeching Report.

The 1982 invitation proved a poisoned chalice, for Margaret Thatcher's government proved no friend to railways. Additionally, 1982 represented a nadir for rail in the UK, with the lowest number of passenger journeys of the second half of the 20th century, the lowest level of passenger miles and the lowest real level of passenger revenue since 1968. Rail passenger numbers had steadily declined since 1957, with decreasing revenues and increasing costs.

Serpell brushed aside encouraging signs such as the emergence of the advanced passenger train, the news that passenger comfort across all types of train had reached levels not seen since pre-war days, the potential offered through major freight expansion and the success of existing main-line electrification.

Serpell's findings unleashed an immediate and hostile reaction on publication in January 1983. Public, media, unions and politicians vilified the report, with the unexpected strength of feeling forcing transport secretary David Howell on to the back foot. BR chairman Sir Peter Parker weighed in with a remark that he found Serpell "as cosy as a razor blade", and the report author – as with Beeching in 1963 – found himself the subject of heavy criticism and even personal abuse (the guard on a train taking him back to his home in Dartmouth, Devon, harangued him for nearly 30 minutes).

There was an element of unfairness in all this, for, as a member of the BR board for eight years from 1974, Serpell actually possessed a liking for and deep knowledge of railways and rail travel. He had also been elected a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Transport. Back in 1963, he had even been a member of a Franco-British working group which reported that a Channel tunnel could be built for 143 million. Serpell, however, took the view that Mr Howell, as transport minister, had asked him a straightforward question and that he, as a loyal civil servant, had to provide a straightforward answer shorn of emotion.

The Serpell episode terminated Mr Howell's career and, until John Major's government privatised the railways in 1994, a constant criticism from Labour and the rail unions was that the Conservative government was "implementing Serpell by stealth".

For some years, the word Serpell became synonymous with cuts and closures and when, in 1983, a press expos cast light on a confidential move by Strathclyde Regional Council to cut services, reduce staff and close a chunk of the Greater Glasgow rail network, it was immediately tagged "the Strathclyde Serpell".

David Radford Serpell enjoyed a brilliant career, and he moved steadily upwards after Oxford and the universities of Toulouse, France; Syracuse, New York state; and Tufts, Massachusetts. He worked in contact with every prime minister from Harold Wilson. His talent was recognised when he was made an OBE at just 33, and with two further major decorations, and finally a knighthood at 57. Retiral at 60 in 1972 thrust him into chairmanship of the Nature Conservancy Council and the National Trust. His final task before his infamous rail report was an examination for environment secretary Peter Shore of the Ordnance Survey.

GORDON CASELY

Serpell is survived by his second wife, Doris, ne Farr, and the three sons of his first marriage.