My Mum’s Uncle Joe was the station master at King’s Cross, the nearest thing to royalty in our family.
In fact, his proximity to royalty made him quite the celebrity. When King George V and his entourage took the royal train to Balmoral, it was Joe’s job to wave them off.
On the return leg, he would be there on the platform to roll out the red carpet, resplendent in his ceremonial tail coat and bowler hat.
Some station masters favoured the topper — as worn by Sir Topham Hatt, the Fat Controller from the Thomas The Tank Engine stories.
But Joe stuck to the bowler, standard issue on the London and North Eastern Railway.
Paddington station boss Michelle Handforth (pictured) is paid a salary of £300,000 a year
‘My Mum’s Uncle Joe was the station master at King’s Cross, the nearest thing to royalty in our family,’ Richard Littlejohn said
He took his work seriously. Back then the station master was a respected pillar of the community, like bank managers and local bobbies — all now a vanishing, if not already vanished, breed.
Station masters have gone the way of railway ticket offices, High Street bank branches and police stations as budget cuts, bone-idleness and the selfish Working From Home curse have taken root.
Actually, Uncle Joe pretty much did work from home. More accurately, on his own doorstep. He lived in an LNER company house on the Caledonian Road, North London’s famous ‘Cally’ thoroughfare. The house came with the job and was just a couple of hundred yards from his office at King’s Cross.
Not that he’d have spent too much time behind a desk. He’d have been out and about, greeting passengers and inspecting the troops, a reassuring presence, suited and booted, immaculate in starched collar and three-piece whistle. Think Frank Thornton’s floorwalker Captain Peacock, from David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd’s BBC comedy Are You Being Served?
Funnily enough, it was at King’s Cross station that Mum first set eyes on my Dad, walking down the steps on to the concourse. They were both employed by LNER in those days.
Mum’s side of the family all worked on the railways. Dad’s mostly worked the London docks but he took a job with the newly nationalised British Railways when he resigned from the Metropolitan Police, which he’d joined on being demobbed from the Royal Navy after the war.
You may be wondering where this nostalgic meandering through Littlejohn’s Lost World is leading, apart from the fact that, in the immortal words of Michael Parkinson, you meet a better class of person down Memory Lane.
I thought of Uncle Joe when I read about Michelle Handforth, the woman in charge of Paddington railway station, five stops and ten minutes from King’s Cross on the Tube.
Michelle Handforth, 60, lives in Aberdeen, 524 miles away from Paddington station (pictured)
You might expect her to live within walking distance of her office, like Uncle Joe. Westbourne Terrace, maybe, or Connaught Square. Nice part of the world, although admittedly quite pricey, ever since Tony Blair and the Arabs moved in.
Still, on a salary of £300,000 a year, she ought to be able to afford a mortgage on a pied-a-terre in Paddington, even at today’s interest rates.
Not even close.
Ms Handforth, 60, lives in Aberdeen, 524 miles away from Paddington. She can’t even get a direct train to work, let alone walk there. Her infrequent visits to the office involve taking a flight to Heathrow and hopping on the rattler to Paddington. Taking into account the usual hassle of buggering around at the airport, her quickest journey door-to-door must be at least five hours.
She is also responsible for overseeing services in the West of England and Wales. In the last financial year she claimed expenses of around £10,000 for flights, including two £536 return trips to Bristol.
I’m Handy, fly me.
Ms Handforth was formerly head of the Aberdeen Harbour Board and was hired by state-owned Network Rail in 2021. Her contract states she is allowed to work from home with travel and accommodation costs to be paid ‘where required’ to compensate for the inconvenience of actually having to turn up at the workplaces for which she is responsible.
Network Rail says the deal is justified because it has to be ‘innovative and flexible in order to secure the services of great people’. Last year, the organisation spent £188,000 on domestic flights for staff, rather than require them to travel by train like the punters they are paid to serve.
This WFH culture and jet-set travel arrangements could perhaps be justified if Network Rail was a model of efficiency. But its latest annual report showed it missed targets on everything from overcrowding and cleanliness to ‘station environment’.
Network Rail’s latest annual report showed it missed targets on everything from overcrowding and cleanliness to ‘station environment’
Perhaps if the boss didn’t live 524 miles from the main terminus she is supposed to be in charge of, things might improve.
But Ms Handforth’s extraordinary deal is sadly symbolic of the self-entitled culture of WFH which has become institutionalised, especially in the public sector, since Covid.
In another development, a passport officer attempted to sue the Home Office for not paying to upgrade his domestic wifi connection while he works from home. The man, who suffers from diabetes, also expected the taxpayer to provide him with a mobility scooter.
You couldn’t make it up.
Next to this bizarre claim, Ms Handforth’s sweetheart deal seems almost reasonable. That is, until you wonder what Uncle Joe would have made of it.
He lived a couple of minutes away from his place of work and was on parade daily. The idea that you could run a London mainline railway station from Scotland would have horrified him. Joe lived on the Caledonian Road. Michelle Handforth lives in Caledonia.
Still, conveniently for Ms Handforth, King Charles and Camilla are heading for Balmoral next week. She could greet them there. I’m sure she’d look quite fetching in a bowler hat.
Sadly, though, there is no longer a direct rail service between Balmoral and Aberdeen.
The good news is that Balmoral is only 40 miles from Aberdeen airport. She could always fly there.
Time to fight back against the Brexit bullies
Our ‘friends’ in Europe continue taking their revenge for Brexit. The Mail on Sunday has revealed that Brussels is planning to force all visitors to the EU from Britain to undergo fingerprinting, facial recognition and intrusive background checks.
This vindictive policy will not apply, however, to the boatloads of migrants making their way illegally across the Mediterranean, given free rail tickets in Italy and unhindered passage to the UK by the French.
The European Union is planning to force all visitors from Britain to undergo fingerprinting, facial recognition and intrusive background checks
That’s despite the fact that the undocumented arrivals from Africa, the Middle East and beyond are far more likely to contain criminal and terrorist elements than Howard and Hilda on a two-week package holiday to Torremolinos. Ever since we voted democratically to Leave, the Eurocrats have been determined to hand out a punishment beating.
The ludicrous restrictions on trade between the mainland and Northern Ireland were simply our starter for ten. And, shamefully, our Government has let it happen.
Die-hard Remainers in the civil service Blob have been complicit as they attempt to sabotage Brexit.
It turns out that UK diplomats, who are supposed to be working on our behalf, agreed the draconian new border checks without any objection.
This unnecessary hostility is all one-way. French customs and immigration subject British travellers to pettifogging scrutiny and bureaucracy. Yet we still wave through EU goods and visitors with minimum ceremony. Economic protectionism is in nobody’s interest. But it is time we started to retaliate.
If you’ve travelled back through Heathrow lately, you will have discovered that despite promises at the time of the referendum, there is no exclusive fast-track for UK citizens, which should have been an early benefit of ‘taking back control’.
We have to wait in line behind hundreds of passengers with EU passports, who are still allowed to use electronic entry gates.
If Brussels is serious about imposing Big Brother controls on British visitors, we should at least respond in kind, impose similar checks on EU passport holders and see how they like being at the back of the queue.
I read a frightening statistic yesterday. There are now more people in Britain employed in ‘human resources’ and ‘diversity’ than in agriculture.
These aren’t just unproductive jobs, they are counter-productive, a drain on productivity and profits. No wonder we are soon to be poorer than Poland and U.S. states like Mississippi.
But it might explain why we have to import foreign farm workers and the country is fast going to Hell in a handcart.