Giles Woodforde speaks to David Mather who has spent his life keeping us moving

When David Mather first arrived in Oxford in 1972 as British Rail’s assistant area manager, it was impossible to imagine today’s overcrowded commuter trains – let alone the need to open an entirely new alternative rail service from Oxford to London.

“Oxford Station itself was very poor,” David remembers, all too clearly. “An emergency, temporary building had been erected on the London-bound platform, and there was only one little bus shelter on the other platform.

“At the time, there was even the possibility of buffer stops being installed north of the station, and everything closing beyond Oxford – including the service to Banbury. The Cotswold line would have finished at Moreton-in-Marsh.”

But David is not the sort of man who could accept that he had taken up a dead end job – almost literally.

“Alan Footer, my then boss, arrived in Oxford at the same time as I did,” he continues, “And we both decided that we were going to reverse the situation.

“The previous area manager had even told the British Leyland car plant that he didn’t want any more freight traffic, and had tried to close the Morris Cowley branch line.

“The Bicester line was in question too, but in that case the track had to be retained for military purposes.

“So it was a pretty dismal picture. But we continued to fight, and we were eventually able to save the situation.”

David was born into a railway family, and his father was a Nottinghamshire stationmaster – an early photograph shows David as a youngster being put to work weeding the flowerbeds that adorned his father’s station platforms.

“I was made to join British Road Services, so that I didn’t carry on the tradition of every male member of the family working on the railways,” David laughs.

“But railways always fascinated me, and I was fortunate to become a British Rail management trainee in 1966.

“I moved first to Wellington, Shropshire, and then to Stratford-upon-Avon as stationmaster. From there I went to Leamington Spa as assistant area manager, before coming to Oxford.”

We first met when I was working at Radio Oxford in the 1980s, and David struck me then as someone who has never outgrown a small boy’s enthusiasm for his first model train set – and as a considerable maverick, who does not meekly accept policy decisions handed down from above.

As we talk in the Oxfordshire home David and his family have now occupied for more than 40 years, he agrees that my description of his character is “probably entirely fair”.

In due course David was promoted to area manager, and innovations quickly followed. There were spirited price wars with the Oxford Bus Company over fares to London, and on the Cotswold Line.

David remembers: “I let the ladies of Kingham and Charlbury set the shoppers’ fares on off-peak trains: there was no fun in running empty trains. So as long as I was getting £1 return, that was fine.”

As Radio Oxford’s breakfast programme presenter, I quickly discovered that David didn’t fob off enquiries about late-running trains with opaque excuses, unlike most British Rail executives. He actually believed in telling the unvarnished truth, however shameful that truth might be.

“I felt this was right both for customers and staff,” David says now. “I’ve always been brought up to believe that if you tell the truth, even if you’ve made a mess of things, it is only right to let people know. The important thing is to try to ensure that the same problem doesn’t happen again. This policy certainly resulted in less complaints from customers: what, for example, is the cost of a free cup of tea when a train is seriously delayed? Or a free taxi to get someone home when they’ve been delayed for an hour or two due to a problem that your own industry has created?

“It helps the staff too: if they know the boss is telling the truth, they will be able to do so as well. The other important thing is that the manager should be out on the platform, explaining things first hand.”

Back in his office, David continued to hatch new plans. The Abingdon branch had to close, but he saw great potential in the Cotswold Line. There were special shoppers’ trains from Oxford to Milton Keynes, run via Bicester.

But, I ask David, did he ever dream that the Bicester branch would one day be developed into a new main line?

“I always had hopes for the line. Just before I left the Oxford area in 1984, I set the plans for rebuilding Bicester London Road station, and operating a Bicester to Oxford service, which duly began the year after I left.

“In 1989 I ran a train from Swindon to Peterborough, via Oxford, Bicester, Bletchley, and Bedford, to prove that we could reopen that length of line to passengers.

“But sadly the freight business on the line failed, and it was mothballed. So that idea disappeared, and I thought that would be the end of it. But then Chiltern Railways came along with their plan to join the Bicester branch with their main line to London, followed by East West Railways’ proposal to reopen the line to Bedford.

“Now it looks as if it might go as far as Cambridge, so my plan may yet come to fruition.”

David has officially retired three times so far, ending 52 years of railway service. But his energy and enthusiasm are plainly undimmed, and he still advises on special projects.

His reputation for plain speaking remains intact too – when I ask whether we really need to spend £43bn (at current estimates) on a highly controversial new high speed line to Birmingham and the North, David’s answer is immediate: “It’s essential. The trouble is that the plan has been badly presented, often by people who haven’t done their homework.

“It’s a matter of under-capacity: the existing main line cannot cope with both express services and increasing numbers of semi-fast and freight trains. The economic benefits will be enormous.”