The Potters Bar derailment may well have signed Jarvis’ death warrant, but guilt was never proven – is that fair?

It looks like the end is nigh for Jarvis, one of the poster boys of the construction industry at the turn of the millennium. Just over a week ago, it confirmed to the stock exchange that strategic options were being looked at, “one of which may lead to an offer for Jarvis being made”. Given that financial sensitivities temper the language that listed companies can use, this was the same as announcing “Come and buy us now”.

I have followed the company since the 2002 train derailment at Potters Bar, a stretch of track maintained by the company. There is little doubt that management must take the blame for many of the financial woes that publicly followed the derailment (though they privately started some time before it). For example, there was underpricing of PFI school contracts and accounting trickery to keep the thing afloat.

But the major problem was the damage to the Jarvis name brought about by Potters Bar, causing the company to lose work. Whichever firm buys the remnants of Jarvis will surely not run it as a standalone business: the name will disappear, the employees and plant merged into its new owner’s existing divisions.

Jarvis has never been prosecuted, and the board simply accepted responsibility on behalf of the industry. Jarvis never admitted guilt and those within the business, both past and present, remain absolutely convinced that the cause was probably sabotage. Either way, they feel – and this is a phrase I have heard from probably a dozen Jarvis sources over the years – “guilty before proven innocent”.

Make no mistake: Jarvis’ PR was poor and the sabotage theory has never been proven either. But these guys have a point. There are tales of people who worked on that stretch of track being bullied by old so-called “friends”; executives who weren’t even responsible for the rail business suffering recurring nightmares; and thousands of employees ended up losing their jobs.

The downfall of Jarvis is a sad, rollercoaster yarn. It has made great copy for journalists and readers. It has been difficult to feel sorry for those associated with Jarvis’ demise and its recent mini-revival. But in this country people are innocent before proven guilty, and it’s a great shame that Jarvis was not granted the same treatment over Potters Bar.