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Sir Robert Alastair Newton Morton (11 January 1938 – 1 September 2004) was Chief Executive of Eurotunnel and Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority and an industrialist of considerable achievements and renown.
Morton was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and read law at Worcester College, Oxford. He was managing director of the British National Oil Corporation 1976–80; chief executive of Guinness Peat Group 1982–87 and chairman in 1987; co-chairman of Eurotunnel, 1987–96 and group chief executive 1990–94; chairman of the British Treasury's private finance panel 1993–95 and chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, 1999–2001.
In 1990, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Laws) from the University of Bath. He was chairman of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain 1994–2004. Morton was knighted in 1992. He died on 1 September 2004 aged 66.
As managing director of the British National Oil Corporation (1976–80), he fought to resist privatisation. In 1993 he chaired the United Kingdom Treasury's private finance panel, which sought private capital for transport projects. He was appointed co-chairman of Eurotunnel in 1987. The project cost more than twice its projected £4.8 billion price tag. The Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher had insisted that the project had to pay its own way, and the UK legislation which authorised and facilitated the project contained an outright ban on any British public subsidy for the works.
Strategic Rail Authority
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In 1999, the British deputy prime minister John Prescott MP appointed Morton to the chairmanship of the British Railways Board and, once created from February 2001, the Strategic Rail Authority, from which he resigned in October 2001 in the aftermath of the collapse of Railtrack. Morton famously coined the phrase that the aftermath of the Hatfield rail crash constituted a 'collective nervous breakdown' on the part of the British railway industry.
The Authority had been created for ambiguous political reasons, with considerable political and public expectations vested in it but without nearly the power to meet them. Relations with the Department for Transport, the Treasury and the Rail Regulator - which collectively did have the powers which Morton wanted - deteriorated quite quickly.
Towards the end of his time at the SRA, Morton was making public statements which were more and more critical of his political masters and what he saw as their intransigence in allowing him both the power and the freedom he believed he should have had. In relation to powers to hold Railtrack - the national railway infrastructure company - to account, Morton's jurisdictional skirmishes with the Rail Regulator became public after the Ladbroke Grove rail crash and Morton would never accept that the Rail Regulator and not the SRA had the right to determine what Railtrack's financial framework and settlement should be.
He summed up his objections in what became his second most memorable railway phrase - 'He who pays the piper should call the tune' - by which he meant that the SRA should set the overall level of public spending on the railways, and what was to be delivered with the cash, and the Rail Regulator should simply check that the money was efficiently used. That never happened during his tenure at the SRA, although it became reality in 2005 with the passage of the Railways Act 2005 which curtailed the power of the Office of Rail Regulation (which replaced the Rail Regulator in July 2004) in financial matters. Morton resigned in October 2001.