Leading Network Rail has never been an easy job, not least because of its previously rather odd status as an entirely independent and notionally private company, but one whose entire business has always depended on government.
And the changes implemented in September, when NR was placed ‘on the public books’, made NR’s top job if not harder, then much riskier, given the sweeping powers over the organisation taken by the Secretary of State for Transport and the even more intense potential public scrutiny.
A decidedly odd construct, NR is supposedly a private company with no shareholders, whose strategic direction is theoretically steered by its members (somewhere between 30 and 50 of them). These members are, however, all effectively appointed by the company’s board, and so effective corporate governance has always been somewhat sceptically regarded by industry and commentators alike.
The negative perceptions created by a Board that appoints the panel of members who are then supposed to hold it to account are both obvious and powerful. This led to NR’s members never being taken especially seriously, putting an even greater focus on its chief executive. This position has always attracted more attention than that of non-executive chairman, who has usually been of much lower public profile.
This unusual corporate status was the brainchild and creation of Gordon Brown, who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer when Railtrack went bust in 2001, wanted a way to keep our railways running without any negative impact on public borrowing. The result was Network Rail - a notionally private company whose finances were effectively underpinned by taxpayers, but whose large debt was (as a result of this bureaucratic bodyswerve) kept off the public balance sheet.
This attracted controversy and criticism from the start, but for a decade or so the barbs of critics and the rumblings of discontent from the Public Accounts Committee were deflected and controlled.
Thus, the company rolled on through the leadership of three chief executives: the urbane and effective John Armitt; uncompromising control by Iain Coucher, under whom central control was ruthlessly enforced; and then the quiet but very successful David Higgins, who devolved power to the routes.
Armitt and Higgins were both subsequently knighted, and continue to develop very successful public service infrastructure roles. Coucher vanished back into the specialist defence sector, his inflexible central control at Network Rail having been systematically dismantled by Higgins, who devolved power and control back to regional management.
Higgins was not just effective, however, but popular. He’s one of those leaders whose authority does not depend on management by fear or throwing his weight around. Like others of similar approach - Christopher Garnett, Ed Burkhardt, Chris Green or Adrian Shooter - he won intense loyalty and commitment among his staff as a result.
Higgins was one of those leaders who managed to pull off that difficult trick of being both popular and respected. Having earned a solid reputation as the man who delivered the 2012 Olympics on time and on budget, and having rescuscitated Network Rail after a period of demoralising (and paralysing) central control, Higgins was always going to be a tough act to follow as chief executive at NR, on whose shoulders approximately 35,000 staff and 24,000 trains a day depend.
So when Higgins announced his forthcoming departure in July 2013 (it actually happened in April 2014), bound for the chairman’s job at HS2 Ltd, the headhunters got to work.
Intense industry speculation accompanied the surreptitious shoulder-tapping and interviewing that followed. Would it be an internal appointment? Or would another ‘outsider’ be brought in, to ensure there was no lack of new thinking, new approaches or new ideas?
Eventually it was announced that the job had gone to 55-year-old career oil and gas executive Mark Carne, latterly executive vice president for Middle East and North Africa at Shell.
Here was a man whose working life had been spent in high-risk, capital-intensive business where asset and risk management were paramount. On the face of it, Carne was a good fit.
As always, rail industry reaction was the usual mixture of “Who is he?” and “What’s his past and reputation?”
We found out soon enough, because Carne wasted absolutely no time. Within hours of his arrival at Network Rail’s Kings Place smoked-glass offices overlooking the King’s Cross station throat, Carne swapped his (very) expensively tailored suit jacket for brand new high-vis - and off he went on our 11,000 route mile national network.
He threw himself into an intense and exhausting (according to the staff tasked with arranging and accompanying) nationwide ballast-to-boardroom induction that took him from trackside to control room, and from offices to on-track machines in a series of fact-finding and familiarisation visits.
Old hand NR Head of Media Kevin Groves, who has been handling NR media communications throughout my 19 years at RAIL, was taken aback by Carne’s pace and depth of nationwide activity.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,”
he says. “He was into absolutely
everything, and had an insatiable
curiosity to meet our people and not only
find out what the company actually does -
but what makes it really tick.”
I was offered an early opportunity to meet Carne and see him in action. Not long after he took over, I was asked by another NR executive if I’d help out at a couple of the company’s annual staff briefing presentations.
Early each year, a handful of NR’s top men and women, led by the chief executive, update staff on the company’s progress and the latest plans, and answer questions. I was invited to speak as an informed company outsider at two of these sessions, about how NR is seen by the rest of us. This was a brave request, and I enjoyed speaking candidly to the 600 or so staff involved.
There were two presentations in Birmingham, before and after lunch, and so I was able to watch Carne at close quarters, talking about his approach, his belief and his plans. He was listened to intently - those on the payroll were keen to hear his views and opinions at first hand.
The first thing that strikes you about Carne is that he is measured, polite, quietly spoken and a good listener. An interesting detail is that the man is immaculately groomed - and I do mean immaculately. Not a hair out of place. Elegant and expensive tailoring. He is completely assured, confident, and seemingly unfazed by whatever is happening around him.
We met a couple of times for this interview, at the Kings Place offices that the company is vacating. As ever, he was friendly, open and welcoming, and there were no questions that he fudged or declined to answer.
You only get the one chance for first impressions. So what were his like, given that at the time Dawlish was in full swing?
There is no hesitation… this is an easy one.
“I had such a strong first impression because I arrived at a time of enormous challenge for Network Rail and for railways as a whole,” he begins.
“To be thrown in literally at the deep end, with the floods and chaos, was such a great opportunity because it enabled me to see what this company is capable of doing, and what the railway is capable of doing when the chips are down.”
I point out that the railway always pulls together and excels in a crisis.
“The way people came together was exceptional,” he agrees. “I think the unique features of that crisis were the way in which it didn’t matter what company you worked for - whether you were a contractor or a sub-contractor, or the head of Network Rail. Everyone came together as an industry to sort out the problems and that’s what made me realise what this industry is capable of delivering.
“It was fantastic and I was hugely impressed. And that has stayed with me - that sense of the capacity of the industry. We all know that life isn’t a full-time crisis and we don’t run the industry in a crisis mode all the time. But what it did highlight was that we have this capacity to achieve great things. The trick we have to find is how to deliver that kind of performance as an industry every day, rather than just turning it on when there is a crisis.”
Did it help that public and media scrutiny were on the spectacular scenes of flooding - not focusing on Network Rail?
“I suppose the other thing about that crisis was it showed the scale of what we face. The railway was washed away not just at Dawlish, but also throughout the country.
“We had 280 places where the railway was under water, and it was just so obvious that the public were incredibly supportive. It’s so motivating for NR staff - when they feel that the public are actually behind them and want them to succeed, it drives them on.”
Carne speaks especially warmly of how the people of Dawlish welcomed and supported what came to be known nationally as ‘the Orange Army.’
“They were bringing out tea and sandwiches and pizza, and it was just great,” he says. “There was this great sense of community spirit that pulled everybody together and made people really bring their best to their work. That’s the sort of sense that I had right at the beginning about what this organisation and this industry is capable of, and nothing that I have seen over the past few weeks and months has made me doubt that.”
So, no “OMG - what have I done?” moments?