He’s right that at the time Secretary of State for Transport (now Sir) Patrick McLoughlin said that reclassification was a procedural move, and that it would largely be “business as usual”. But there was certainly great apprehension - very rapidly borne out - about the effect that reclassification of its ballooning debt would have on NR. We’ll come back to that.
It very rapidly stopped being the job you’d actually been appointed to, didn’t it? As a successful oil and gas executive, you were suddenly head of an effectively nationalised industry. Why did you decide to carry on, once it wasn’t what you’d been recruited for?
“I never thought about walking away,” he replies without any hesitation. “The reasons I wanted to do this job are the same today as they were then. I profoundly believe that there is an opportunity in Britain’s railways to improve the railway’s performance.
“To play a part in that is very exciting, because Britain’s railways really matter. This is not like running a business where if you manufacture something well you make a little bit more money for shareholders. What we and the train operating companies do really matters.
“It impacts people’s lives. And if you’re an engineer, as I am, and you’re driven to want to do something that makes a difference, then this has to be the best job in the country. I genuinely do not believe that there is another job that even comes close to this one.”
There’s no lack of commitment or enthusiasm there. Does he now see himself as part of Government?
“Yes - yes I do. We are part of Government, so there’s no point in trying to pretend we’re not.”
Does that run against a grain with you, given your extensive - and pretty high-octane - private sector experience?
He reflects for a moment.
“Well… yes and… no!” he says with a smile. “I used to run the North Sea for Shell under 40-year licences. They are essentially four-decade monopolies. You don’t work among other companies who are trying to produce better performance out of that asset, which you might experience if you were running, say, a car plant. But you still have to inspire and motivate those people working on that platform to do a better job every single day, and that’s the thrill of leadership in those situations. It’s exactly the same sort of thrill in this job - to try to inspire NR people to outperform every day.”
So does the Treasury act as a proxy for the shareholder for you? Do you still feel that sense of hot breath on the back of your neck?
“Yes - the Treasury and DfT are the shareholder and I have to treat them and behave with them in the same way - because they also have choices about where to spend their money.
“In my case, we work with the DfT and Treasury to convince them to invest in the railway, rather than in other things like roads or hospitals or police, defence or whatever. We have to give them confidence that railways are the right place to invest and that we will spend the money wisely, at a good rate of return. So we are a business with all the same drivers as a normal business, even though we are part of Government. That’s why I stress continually that even though we are a public sector body we absolutely MUST behave like a private business.”
Nevertheless, Carne is keen to stress the unique nature of the railway and the instant pressures it brings to bear.
“There are similarities with oil and gas in that both industries are safety-critical and always operationally intense. There are massive ‘moments’ because the railway is both politically sensitive and economically vital. The difference is that molecules of oil and gas don’t complain if they are late on arrival to a terminal, whereas passengers quite rightly do complain - loudly. And so the intensely operational intensity of the railway is of a completely different magnitude to oil and gas. That’s totally different from anything I’d ever experienced before.”
In the mid-1990s, Stagecoach top man Brian Souter had a similar shock when he took over South West Trains, where vociferous complaints were instant when it all went wrong. Bus passengers don’t complain in anything like the same way. Yes, railways are different.
Carne had an early, painful baptism of fire with intensely critical media focus and passenger complaints over Christmas 2014, when engineering work at both King’s Cross and Paddington ran horribly late. There was chaos at Finsbury Park, operational meltdown, and thousands of angry passengers inconvenienced. Carne was at home in Cornwall, and at first remained there before driving back to London rather than taking the train. The media was merciless.
The ineptly planned and launched Great Western electrification programme followed, which ultimately derailed other major wiring projects around the country - principally on the Midland Main Line and in the North West. The Government suspended the wider OLE programme and Hendy was parachuted in to replace the near-invisible Richard Parry-Jones. The reputation of the railway as a whole, and NR in particular as steward of our rail infrastructure, hit a new low. ‘Discuss’ - as all the best A-level exam papers used to say…!