Kevin Lewis compares the frustrations of UK rail commuters with NHS dental contract holders.

Picture a world-weary commuter – probably (but not necessarily) in the north of England – whose trains are cancelled, rescheduled onto a crisis timetable and then cancelled again. Finally, that rarest of all sightings – a train – makes a welcome guest appearance at the end of the platform, and seems likely to have been shortlisted for the Guinness Book of Records category for fitting the most people into a given space.

With a fellow passenger’s elbow in his (or her) ribcage, a strategically placed backpack forcing their face at right angles to their body and a negotiated agreement with adjacent passengers to breathe in and out in unison, you are forced to keep looking in whatever direction your head happens to be facing.

As things turn out, this happens to be over someone’s shoulder at the newspaper of that most envied of humans, a seated passenger. And as luck would have it, the newspaper is open at the story of Mark Carne (the outgoing CEO of Network Rail) being awarded a CBE for services to the railway industry over the past three-and-a-half years.

If you are thinking you have heard that name before, you may be right. Not to be confused with Mark Carney (governor of the Bank of England) of course, Mark Carne has been in post since 2014 and within three years his salary increased from £675,000pa to £820,000pa. Virgin East Coast is one of several rail franchises to have blamed its performance failures on Railtrack’s inglorious history of missed deadlines for key stages of its modernisation programme.

I did enjoy the suggestion from one commentator that Mr Carne should allow plenty of time for his rail journey to the palace to collect his gong, just in case there are any problems with the trains that day. Stranger things have happened. Another wit likened Mr Carne’s appointment as a CBE to rewarding the captain of the Titanic for services to sea transport. They might have added, ‘at least the Titanic departed on time and had deckchairs to sit on’… for the first part of the journey anyway.

Unfortunate

There were some notable successes on Mr Carne’s short watch, I gather, but he will not win the war of public perception over this. Even Chris Grayling was forced to concede that the timing of the CBE announcement was ‘unfortunate’ given that he was himself pointing the finger of blame at Railtrack only a week earlier when the rail crisis dragged him to the despatch box. The mood is becoming ugly regarding CEOs who continue to do very nicely thank you, at precisely the moment when employees are facing pay cuts or losing their jobs.

Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe saw a £1 million increase in his salary to £3.4 million, including a £427,000 bonus partly for delivering the Argos acquisition, but at the same time he presided over a 19% fall in profits and accepted his modest pay uplift at the very moment when 9,000 store staff were facing a pay cut.

But if he felt especially brave he might tell these employees that his own salary was nothing compared to the £4.9 million per annum pocketed by Dave Lewis (no relation – unfortunately) at Tesco, or the £5.8 million pa salary of David Potts at Morrisons.

Morrisons, it has to be said, has flourished on a staggering scale since Potts took the helm and there would be other companies queuing up to pay him even more than this in return for his seemingly golden touch.

Strange as it seems, the amounts of money are not really the point. The measure should be that of value and merit. Some CEOs have bonus objectives that can be met even while trashing once-successful organisations, trampling over the workforce and leaving the company worse off than when they took up office. If remuneration committee members are daft enough or blind enough to let this happen, that’s the end of the story. And in some cases, the company.

Mark Carne’s CBE does raise another issue, however. Compared to the other CEO salaries cited above, Carne came quite cheap, which is arguably as it should be in a publicly owned company. He ran Railtrack for less than four years, and had no background in the rail industry before that. Yet his CBE is said to be for his services to the railway industry, so the public (including rail commuters and Virgin/Stagecoach shareholders) have a right to ask whether that stacks up.

The invisible workforce

In this 70th anniversary year for the NHS, Health Service workers made up 12% of people recognised in The Queen’s Birthday Honours List. But not one of them was a general dental practitioner or practice-based specialist. Yet in Australia, the same Honours List recognised five dentists, all of whom have spent much or all of their careers in general or specialist dental practice.

One of these was awarded posthumously, and all of them reflected wonderfully well on the contribution made at the sharp end of dentistry, and the importance of this role placing dentistry at the heart of healthcare and its delivery to all corners of society, including the disadvantaged.

Does three-and-a-half years of bringing the UK rail network to the point of collapse really count for so much more than a lifetime of serving in the front line of dental healthcare delivery? And please spare us the usual claptrap that some people (like dentists) are already being paid very handsomely for the work they do. Mark Carne wasn’t, I suppose?

I just think that this latest blanking out of general practice sends out a very curious and unfortunate signal – whether deliberate or unconscious it is still remarkable – and it reminds us that general (and specialist) dental practice is not even a guest, let alone a bridesmaid, at the NHS’s celebration.

It has recently been observed that the inclusion of long-suffering passengers in the recent Birthday Honours List, might have been more easily justified than bestowing a CBE upon the person at the head of the company primarily responsible for their misery.

But understanding the impact on passengers understates the true scale of the consequences of Network Rail’s failures, because sitting at one end of all these long and frustrating rail commutes are all the employers whose staff can’t get to work on time, who arrive tired, stressed and angry, and who might decide that a job nearer home makes more sense. At the other end are all the families and friends who get back a pale shadow of the person who left home that morning, and whose evenings and weekends become recovery times rather than quality times. The adverse impact on society is massive.

But I have a solution. A new ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ honour awarded for endurance and resilience under intolerable pressure. And if all those rail commuters are prime candidates to receive it, so also are general dental practitioners for their services to the NHS in enduring the UDA system for 12 years, and providing endless hours of unpaid voluntary services to their local communities at the same time. Mark Carne would have started and left three jobs in that time. But this could at least be one honours list that dentists would regularly feature on. Whadyathink?


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