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Iain Coucher: Riding a new wave

Network Rail’s championing of a new high speed line to Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland is an important step in its transformation from day to day route operator to forward thinking transport provider. Jackie Whitelaw speaks to chief executive Iain Coucher to find out more.

London to Birmingham in 46 minutes; Manchester in 66 minutes; Glasgow and Edinburgh in just over two hours. The headline travel times for the new high speed rail line proposed in Network Rail’s New Lines Programme published last Wednesday disguise the major issue justifying the plan.

Construction of a streamlined £34bn hot ticket to the north is not just about speed or even being more carbon friendly than air travel. It’s about creating extra capacity on northern routes that otherwise will be putting out the “no vacancies” sign in 2020 − a mere 11 years away.

Matching demand

One new high speed route immediately frees up all the other crowded rail lines heading north and gives the UK rail capacity to match what is predicted to be a growing demand for the option of train travel as the century unfolds.

“The decisions we take now, and the investments we make now, will be here for generations,” says Network Rail chief executive Iain Coucher. “Demand for rail travel is growing and our main lines to the north are nearly full. By 2020 we will be turning away passengers. We need to make investments now, for the future.

“We hope the New Lines document will inform national debate. It’s a serious analysis, not kite flying.”

“We hope the New Lines document will inform national debate. It’s a serious analysis, not kite flying.”

Iain Coucher

The whole idea of investment in new domestic routes, reversing 60 years of decline, is a special moment for Network Rail. “It’s a wonderful place to be,” Coucher says. “What people are looking for from Network Rail is for us to move to the next level.

“The first five or six years of our existence have been about recovering the lost years. When Railtrack went into administration it left behind a legacy of problems. We had to deliver the West Coast route modernisation, Thameslink was all over the place, performance was poor and our safety record was all over the place too.

“The first years were spent getting us back to where we should have been. But we’ve delivered that and now people expect more.

“They expect the railways to be open at weekends and bank holidays. They don’t expect to be put on buses. So a big part of what we are doing is thinking about the passenger promise. We have to transform from an engineering company to a service delivery company. That is going to affect what we do, how we invest and how we run the railway.”

Spending and investment

In terms of investment this is good news for the civil engineering industry. The new five year spending period which began in April this year will see total investment in the rail network of £34bn, and of that £12bn will be poured into capacity enhancing major projects that will improve passengers’ experience and enjoyment of taking the train. And actually there is more money even than that.

“We are spending at a rate never seen before in the industry,” Coucher says. “Our core workload of renewals hasn’t changed much on volume at around £1.8bn a year. But three years ago we spent £500M on building a bigger and better railway, then £1bn, then £1.5bn and now it’s £2bn a year. And we’ll be investing at £2bn a year for the next five years.

“We are spending at a rate never seen before in the industry.”

Iain Coucher

“And those figures are before Crossrail, before you take into account the recently announced £1bn electrification programme and before another £2bn investment in Scotland.”

This is all transformational, capacity building stuff like Thameslink, a rebuild of Birmingham New Street, remodelling Reading station, transforming London King’s Cross and building new rail routes in Scotland.

Coucher is, he says, baffled by complaints from a recession hit construction industry that Network Rail has been slow in getting on with spending.

“We will spend more this year on investment than at any other point in our history.” What people may be picking up on, he suggests is that “we are seeking ever greater levels of efficiency in our work. It’s a very competitive market out there. But people are responding well. The message to suppliers has to be to stand back and be objective. We are spending more. More than some sectors, such as signalling, have the capacity for.

“We only sign up to do the things we know we can deliver. Between 80% and 90% of our investment goes through the supply chain so we need a supply chain that can step up. That is why we have been gradually increasing investment from the half a billion three years’ ago.

Delivering the programme

All the schemes in the major projects programme will be delivered, Coucher asserts.

Thameslink for instance, will happen, but whether Blackfriars station will get a state of the art glazed roof for example is up for discussion. “We have a set of outputs we need to achieve but if we can find cheaper solutions to deliver those outputs we will. It’s about value engineering.”

“We want suppliers to innovate so we can lower unit cost and cause less disruption to passengers. Those who can do that will get more work.”

Iain Coucher

Successful delivery is also going to require close collaboration with the supply chain. “We are working on a transformational programme of efficiencies and we want suppliers to innovate so we can lower unit cost and cause less disruption to passengers. Those who can do that will get more work.

“But we recognise that there is a nervousness about trusting Network Rail’s willingness to commit to the long term planning horizon for capital investment that encourages innovation.

So the general message now is that Network Rail will be looking at longer term relationships that span over control periods, but in return we will need to see real commitment to improving performance, reducing disruption and lowering unit cost.”

This applies to new projects and renewals. Maintenance will stay in house − the decision to bring it back in has worked very well. “There wasn’t a competitive market and we had little control over what happened where and when. We needed a better handle on it. The move in house has paid off because we have achieved lower cost, better asset condition and higher performance in safety and punctuality.”

But there are no plans to take renewals in house. “We looked at that for renewals but decided we had a competitive supply chain with the right skills and resources so there is no intention of doing it. We continue to say that as the suppliers don’t believe us!”

Hiring the next generation

In terms of individuals struggling to find career progression in a recession, the good news is that Network Rail is still recruiting and needs another 800 to 1,000 project managers and engineers.

“We are trying to shift the balance of our people and move them into the project environment. When we created the investment organisation in 2004 we had 1,800 staff, now there are 4,400 and we need more. We have always been able to recruit talent, now we are seeing even more good quality people coming to us.”

“We have always been able to recruit talent, now we are seeing even more good quality people coming to us.”

Iain Coucher

The operator is hoping to see its supply chain equally committed to hiring the next generation of railway engineers, even in the recession. “We have the five year plan and we have the money.

We are in a very privileged position − we have got certainty. For the supply chain, they need the confidence that we will spend so they can make investments. It’s why we are planning on a steady £2bn a year of spending, to eliminate the peaks and troughs that are so disruptive.”

Network Rail’s own staff is playing its own part in the organisation’s transformation. Large numbers will be moving from the 15 regional offices to a new, purpose built national engineering centre in Milton Keynes.

“The regional bases remain − we have to be a geographic operation for operation and maintenance. But we are bringing together all the people who provide operational, engineering and project management support nationally.

“We will do our best to help people relocate, or redeploy if they don’t want to move but there is no denying the power of people working together in the same building.”

Support and long term thinking

Coucher is very complimentary about his people and committed to supporting them. Most obviously recently when he opted to forego his own bonus despite Network Rail hitting its targets so he could defend others receiving theirs.

“It was a personal decision and it wasn’t me setting an example. I wanted to be able to stand up in public and say why the people who got bonuses deserved them, without being accused of being in it for personal gain.”

Going forward it is the ability now to do some long term thinking that is going to help change the face of Network Rail and make it an exciting place to be. Major projects, new routes and electrification will transform the railway.

“Increasingly we’ll be making those sorts of long term decisions,” Coucher says.

High speed hopes

Network Rail’s vision for a high speed north-south line

High speed rail

The New Lines Programme follows a year long study of Britain’s railway capacity problem which concludes that a new high speed railway line is the most effective solution.

Network Rail began the study in June 2008. It found that by the end of the next decade the travel corridor to Birmingham and the North West will become full, and no further enhancements to the existing route can avoid this. It concludes that the best solution would be the building of a new line to the Midlands, North West and beyond. The benefits would be even stronger if that line were capable of running 320km/h-plus services.

The report states: “Experience across Europe has shown how high speed rail takes significant traffic off roads and can almost eradicate domestic air travel.” Network Rail estimates that the corresponding drop in vehicle and air journeys could save 289,000t of CO2 per year. All of the research for the New Lines study will be made available to High Speed 2 to aid it in its own high speed rail brief.

The optimal route

The optimal route for a new line was found to run from London to Scotland via Preston, diverging to take passengers to Birmingham, Manchester, Warrington and Liverpool, and splitting to terminate at Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Such a line could take passengers from central London to central Manchester in just over an hour. It would take only two hours and 16 minutes to reach Glasgow. The revenue and benefits generated, says Network Rail, would total almost £55bn.

A connection to Heathrow was also considered, but it was found that relatively low demand meant there was a better business case for bypassing the airport.

The report suggests having up to 16 trains per hour from and to London, the Midlands, North West and Scotland, and draws up possible timetables, but says it was “just too early in the development of the scheme” to map out a more specific route.

Costs and funding

The total capital costs for construction of such a route are estimated at £34.012bn. With the costs of rolling stock, operation and maintenance over 60 years, this would be closer to £41.3bn.

Network Rail does not say who should build and fund the new line, nor what the timescale would be, although it speculates that such a large project would require government funding and that the project could take “well over a decade”.

However, the report urges imminent action, noting that the UK lags behind the rest of Europe on high speed rail projects, and that our existing routes are rapidly becoming unalterably full.

Jo Stimpson

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