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Obituary: Professor John Hibbs

Obituary: Professor John Hibbs

John Hibbs is remembered by Dr Michael Goldstein CBE, the partner of Cyrrhian Macrae, step-daughter of John Hibbs OBE.

John Hibbs was born in Birmingham but spent his childhood in Brightlingsea, the Essex trading and sea-faring town from where came both sides of his family, Hibbs and Blyth. His father died just ten days after John’s birth, so John was brought up by his mother, supported by two aunts and his grandmother. He was educated first locally, followed by Colchester Royal Grammar School, and then boarded at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire.

By the time he was 18, John was a committed pacifist, following his father, a Congregationalist minister, and satisfied the war-time Tribunal for registration as a Conscientious Objector. He spent the time he would otherwise have been on National Service working in agriculture and in hospitals. It was in such capacity at Essex County Hospital, Colchester that he met a nurse, Paddy, who was much later to become his second wife.

After some further periods of hospital working, including at the Radcliffe in Oxford, he took a BCom (Social Studies) degree of Birmingham University at Woodbrooke, one of the Quaker Selly Oak Colleges. The turning point in his career was securing a second-year placement with the bus and coach company, Premier Travel in Cambridge. That placement supported John’s BCom dissertation, ‘The place of the motor bus in the rural economy’, and led to a job in 1950 as personal assistant to the managing director. John learned a great deal about how to run buses from his boss, but by 1952 the company was in trouble, and John was one of the staff who had to go. By this time he had married Constance, whom he had met at the Radcliffe.

He was fortunate to gain the position of Rees Jeffreys Research Student at the London School of Economics. His MSc research project examined the economics of the road transport licensing system, and became the foundation of much of his later career.

After two years as a transport consultant and technical journalist, together with a fellow Omnibus Society colleague, Bert Davidson, he acquired Corona Coaches in Acton, three miles from Sudbury. Within a few years, Bert died, and not long after things got difficult. Rural car travel was increasing rapidly, leading to less need for public buses, the licensing framework stifled innovation, and credit for fuel became hard to come by. So, with great sadness, John sold the business. After a period as a transport consultant and technical journalist again, he was appointed traffic survey officer at British Railways Eastern Region HQ at Liverpool Street in 1961.

Surviving various re-organisations at BR, and as a member of the British Transport Costing Service, John undertook a wide range of projects involving computerised traffic analysis, costing, market research, demand forecasting, and the market for specific passenger train services. Frustrated at intransigent attitudes, and having acquired a unique set of experiences across road and rail, John took up the challenge of creating the first UK undergraduate course in Transport Studies at what was then City of London College (later, City of London Polytechnic, now London Metropolitan University). Having previously taught with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and been self-employed as a consultant/researcher, this was a smooth transition for him. By the time he left in 1973, he had been promoted to principal lecturer, and established a national reputation.

Following his divorce, John moved to Birmingham to be nearer Paddy, and took a post at Birmingham Polytechnic, which proved to be a great career move. In due course he became director of transport studies, and subsequently professor of transport management. He developed new courses (such as a postgraduate diploma in transport management), taught widely, set up and managed programmes such as an MSc in Transport & Distribution Management, researched, undertook consultancies, published extensively, and successfully supervised postgraduate students to MBA, MSc, MPhil, and PhD degrees. In parallel with this, he gained his own PhD in 1983 with a thesis: “A comparative study of the licensing and control of public road passenger transport in selected overseas countries”. The title of Professor of Transport Management was conferred in 1986.

John became a significant national figure. As an academic, he was in great demand at conferences, through invited contributions, as an external examiner and validator. He also was exceptionally active in a range of professional bodies. He joined the Chartered Institute of Transport (as it then was) in 1951 and remained in continuous membership, holding several offices, including editor of the ‘Proceedings’; he was a member of the Omnibus Society from 1947, and was vice-president from 2006 – sadly he passed away without knowing of his election as president this year. John founded the Organisation of Teachers of Transport Studies (later, the Transport Teachers Association), and also the Roads and Road Transport History Conference/Association. He also played roles in the Institute of Transport Administration, the Passenger Vehicle Operators’ Association, the Transport Studies Society, and the Adam Smith Institute.

John Hibbs was an eloquent speaker and wrote with precision and flair. He was a prolific writer of papers and authored several books. He was particularly renowned for combining clear intellectual analysis with practical experience of the industry; challenging conventional thought; presenting argument with passion and conviction.

John thus had a strong influence, arguably more than anyone in the UK, on establishing transport studies as a credible and important academic subject and as a highly professional area, economically and socially. He effectively created the subject of transport economics, and encouraged a whole new cadre of transport specialists. For his outstanding services to transport education, John was appointed OBE in 1987.

It was little wonder that John’s expertise was sought by policy makers on the national stage. As a long-time Liberal, he was transport advisor to the party (as well as being active at the constituency level). Moreover, his views were influential in formulating the 1980 Transport Act, which was the first move to reinstate the market. Through discussions with the then secretary of state for transport Nicholas Ridley, the 1985 Transport Act and its white paper precursor owe much to John’s arguments. The bus industry was reformed, bringing in a commercial structure, removing the road service licence system and weakening monopoly. There were some aspects of the act of which John did not approve. In particular, he regretted that the act did not actually achieve his desire for full deregulation, which was the popular (and political) description; he regarded it as about ‘regulatory reform and reorganisation.’ Later, John advised John Major and his government on railway privatisation. In the event, privatisation proceeded in a manner contrary to John’s advice (and that of many others); wheel was separated from rail, leading to what John regarded as ‘the mess we have today.’

John continued an active professional life way after his formal retirement, and was frequently called upon as a media commentator. He was still teaching postgraduate students at Aston University into his 80s. He regularly wrote and presented extensively about road and rail policy matters, especially privatisation and deregulation. He continuously challenged the establishment – the road and rail transport industry and government regulators – with careful and critical analysis and research. Not everyone found his arguments to their liking or conviction, but John’s standing and powerful exposition, his integrity and mastery of the economics and practice, and the respect with which he was held, made for compelling listening and attention.

John Alfred Blyth Hibbs passed away on 7 November 2014. He is survived by children Mike, Alison and Robin from his first marriage to Constance, and five step-children Krysia, Cyrrhian, David, Enistine and Tim from his second marriage to Paddy.

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