The tide is turning at Network Rail

One of the privileges of spending a long time in a job like mine is that it gives a unique perspective of how your surroundings evolve over time. And so preparing for this interview, I counted the number of Railtrack/Network Rail chief executives I’ve known, reported on and interviewed since 1995.

It’s seven. That ought to be unsurprising, given that the ‘new’ privatisation era is now in its third decade, but it did rather raise an eyebrow, nonetheless. In order, those CEOs were: John Edmonds (ex-British Rail and Railtrack’s first CEO to chairman John Welsby, also ex-BR), 1990-1995; Gerald Corbett (1997-2000); Steve Marshall (2000-2002); John Armitt (2002-2007); Iain Coucher (2007-2010); David Higgins (2011-2013); and now Mark Carne, who slipped into the hot seat in January 2014.

The relationship between chairman and chief executive in any successfully managed company is enormously important - where it’s dysfunctional or materially non-existent, that organisation is going to end up in trouble.

This at least partly explains some of Railtrack/NR’s tribulations over the years. There have also been seven chairmen since 1995: Sir Robert Horton (1993-1999); Sir Phillip Beck (1999-2001); John Robinson (2001-2002); Sir Ian McAllister (2002-2009); Rick Haythornthwaite (2009-2012); Richard Parry-Jones (2012-2015); and finally Sir Peter Hendy CBE, parachuted in very rapidly from first soundings with the DfT to the formal announcement of his appointment in about a week, in July 2015. 

Before Hendy, none of those non-executive chairmen - how shall I put this? - either excelled or covered themselves in glory. Interestingly, while I rattled off the names and order of service of the CEOs without hesitation, I had to look up the chairmen. Some I had completely forgotten (hardly surprising, as I barely spoke to some of them). Indeed, one I neither met nor spoke to personally at all! With a wry smile, I wondered in passing if some of the CEOs might have said a similar thing?

That’s one of the things that makes Mark Carne different from every one of his predecessors. Unlike them, and from what I can see, Carne clearly does have a very close and highly effective relationship with his chairman. Hendy never fails to speak highly of his CEO. 

I know Hendy well from his days as Transport Commissioner for London, and I have seen him speak on countless occasions. Every single time I have seen Hendy speak at a lectern since joining NR in the summer of 2015, he has made a point of stressing how capable and effective Mark Carne is as CEO.

“I’m not NR’s CEO - it’s already got one of those in Mark Carne, and he’s a very good one too,” is a typical comment. The most recent such occasion was in print in an interview with John Collingridge for the Sunday Times (Business Section) on February 18. 

Hendy wouldn’t be drawn into repeating (let alone expanding) his inflammatory public comments of a year or three ago, when as TfL Transport Commissioner he described Southeastern’s commuter services as “shit awful”, and likened on-train revenue protection officers to the Gestapo. He could not resist repeating, however, that while most London black cab drivers “are fabulous”, he also believes that “a couple of hundred of them are real arseholes”.

Clearly Hendy doesn’t beat about the bush - he always ‘calls it as it is’. And while discussing the tectonic changes which NR has endured in the past three years, he said: “One of the reasons Mark is such a brilliant chief executive is he’s managed to embrace that change.”

Praise indeed. So, as I’ve got to know Carne well over those three years (and he’s an extremely likeable chap one-to-one), I thought it was time for us to sit down for a formal and honest on-the-record conversation.

As ever, Carne was affable, open, professional and highly polished. He’s been like that from Day 1, and as a former very senior global oil and gas executive, that’s precisely what I’d expect. But what lies beneath the professional gloss and impeccable grooming? 

NR is always ‘in the news’ in ways that doubtless create executive discomfort. Is he at ease ‘baring his soul’ to a specialist journal?

“Of course I am!” he replies cheerfully. “There’s a very strong story to tell about the railway and about Network Rail, and I’m always really happy to tell that.”

You’ve been here three years now. Former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson said a week was a long time in politics…

“A lifetime on the railway!”

Does it seem like three years - or much longer?!

“Let’s face it, it has been a very, very challenging three years,” he says. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the reclassification of the debt at the time. Nor did they appreciate the extent that it would change the whole relationship with NR and Government, and how it all works. The change in funding arrangements has had such a profound effect on NR and the industry.”

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