Network Rail needs an exceptional leader

It’s a gross understatement to say that Network Rail’s next chief executive faces a challenge.
She or he will need to take on a government company that faces demands from all corners for more trains, fewer delays, more upgrades, less disruption and all for lower costs.
The successful candidate will need to keep governments in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff close, devolve power to NR’s emerging regional structure but keep sufficient centralised control to allow the railway to remain a single network.
For most problems, there will be no right answer, merely a range that will always upset someone. NR’s current chief executive, Mark Carne, came from the oil and gas industry, an outsider in a traditionally close-knit industry. He arrived as NR began its current five-year funding period with a programme set by government (on NR advice) but not properly developed despite having funding figures and delivery deadlines attached. He leaves later this year with that programme partially delivered amid disquiet from all sides aimed at NR rather than the architect of the mess at the Department for Transport.
What has been delivered is good. Thameslink’s huge upgrade is at last entering its final stages with trains running under automatic control. Electric trains are running on Great Western routes and wires are now in place between Edinburgh and Glasgow and on lines in North West England, most recently to Blackpool. NR has delivered signalling and station upgrades and Carne’s watch has seen the project to switch to ETCS cab-signalling move to a more stable foundation.
In future, upgrade programmes will be assessed and funded on a case-by-case basis which should remove many of the problems Carne inherited. It might be that Westminster’s government moves away them claiming poverty so the next chief executive will need to be a canny lobbyist to secure the improvements his customers – passenger and freight operators – need. It would be a mistake to think everything is about keeping a transport secretary content.
Devolution should pull power and influence away from London. Within Scotland, the government’s transport arm already calls the shots, pushing on with electrification in stark contrast to London’s shelving of such projects. Wales will want more say in its railway and Transport for the North has just received formal powers to direct efforts within its boundaries. It will be pushing hard for more improvements, having seen the Department for Transport back-pedal on several schemes, blaming NR’s high costs.
Carne’s successor will need to push on with NR’s devolution with more vigour than I’ve sensed from Carne himself. The trick will be to establish a centre as small as possible to keep network benefits while keeping the devolved routes no bigger than they need to be. There is plenty of potential for creating bloated mini-NRs while at the same time losing overall control.
I reckon there’s one name that fits this conundrum. Andrew Haines knows his railway. He ran South West Trains, overseeing the introduction of Desiro EMUs around 2004. He later moved to First Great Western. He’s a former BR man.
Haines left the railway in 2009 to become chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority. He presided over last autumn’s successful repatriation of 100,000 Monarch passengers who were stranded abroad by that airline’s collapse. He brings experience of the CAA’s role in overseeing safety standards, making efficient use of airspace and protecting passengers as consumers. In the rail sector, much of this is the preserve of ORR rather than NR. Yet is has brought Haines the experience of balancing the need to allow airlines to pursue their own commercial strategies while working within an overall framework. To my mind, this has parallels with NR’s devolved routes.
Government rather than NR oversees train operators’ delivery of their franchise obligations but it’s useful to have someone who understands operators’ business realities at the top of their key supplier.
So too is having someone who understands government and politicians. Carne had around his neck at a recent meeting of the transport committee was the type of ID pass granted to civil servants who need frequent access to the Houses of Parliament. The next chief executive must also work with potential financiers to find money to deliver upgrades that government declines to fund.
He or she will witness High Speed 2 building its line from London to Birmingham, causing considerable disruption around NR’s Euston station. Whether or not NR takes responsibility for the finished line, and its planned extensions to Manchester and Leeds, remains to be seen. Whether or not NR does, it will have to plan timetables that seamlessly linked with HS2 services as they run beyond their dedicated lines to serve towns and cities beyond.
It may be that NR divests its ‘system operator’ function that provides long-term planning and timetables as NR becomes just one of several rail infrastructure companies.
Carne’s job is not for the faint-hearted. It will demand an astute manager capable of working across many different views and perspectives. We should find out who that is later this year.

This article first appeared in RAIL 851, published on April 25 2018. As a postscript, Andrew Haines was later appointed NR’s chief executive.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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