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The man who jointly set up the company that runs Britain’s rail network was to step down after nearly eight years at the top of the company, Network Rail unexpectedly announced on Thursday.

Rick Haythornthwaite, Network Rail chairman, said the company’s board had agreed with Iain Coucher, chief executive, that now was the ideal time to hand over to a new chief executive.

Network Rail is one year into a five-year funding period running to March 2014 and will soon have to start negotiating what is likely to be a tough settlement for the five years following that.

“Iain and I are working closely together to find a successor and then deliver a smooth and orderly transition,” he said. Mr Coucher, 49, agreed that it was a “good time” to move on.

“Leading the thousands of dedicated railwaymen and women that make up this company has been the greatest privilege of my professional life,” he said.

Mr Coucher’s resignation brings to an end a relationship with Network Rail that dates back to when he drew up the concept for a not-for-profit operator of the national rail network with Victoria Pender, now Network Rail’s head of government affairs.

Network Rail, which has no shareholders but is backed by government guarantee, took over the rail network in October 2002 from Railtrack, which had collapsed a year earlier. He was deputy chief executive from 2002 to 2007 and took over as chief executive when John Armitt left to run the Olympic Delivery Authority.

He has presided over sharp improvements in punctuality. Only about 80 per cent of trains arrived on time – within 10 minutes of schedule for long-distance services and five minutes for others – when Network Rail took over. The year to March saw 91.5 per cent of trains arrive on time.

However, the company has faced controversy over its efforts to reduce costs that had soared in Railtrack’s later years. It cut the average cost of doing work by 28 per cent over the five years to March 2009 but narrowly missed a 31 per cent target.

It faces a target to cut another 21 per cent from costs over the present five-year period, but the Office of Rail Regulation has warned that “weaknesses” in its management raise questions about its ability to do so.

The new government has asked a group investigating the cost-effectiveness of the railways to speed up its work, in an effort to cut the system’s costs. It is also demanding the scaling back of some of the huge, government-funded investment programme currently under way.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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