Running Network Rail is a fairly thankless task at the best of times, we imagine, but particularly at this time of year. The UK rail infrastructure company (technically a private business, though to all intents and purposes it's a public body) has just reported a near-75% drop in pre-tax profits, to £395m, while it's under fire from its regulator for not doing more to cut costs. Not exactly the best time to announce big bonuses for its top execs, then - even if more of our trains are actually running on time these days...
Today's results highlight the bizarre position of National Rail - although a private company, it gets most of its money from the taxpayer (along with the train operators). So given that the Government has recently cut its allowed return from track charges from 6.5% to 4.8%, it's no wonder that its revenues and profits are down.
CEO Iain Coucher was also keen to highlight that more trains are running on time: punctuality is now at 91.5%, its highest-ever figure (since records began, Coucher insists) and above its mandated 91% level. The unions have been quick to point out that since Network Rail doesn't own a single train, the credit for this should go to the railway operators - but this rather misses the point that people are quick to blame Network Rail if track problems cause delays.
The suggestion is that this concentration on punctuality improvements is meant to pave the way for Network Rail to pay out big bonuses to Coucher and his top brass at the end of the month. But it's likely to face lots of opposition on this score. Yesterday its regulator, the Office of Rail Regulation, criticised its 'mixed performance' over the last year on cost-cutting and safety (which included the deaths of three workers). And the unions are (inevitably) also up in arms: Gerry Doherty of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association argues that Coucher 'makes Dick Turpin look like an amateur when it comes to daylight robbery'.
Coucher himself waived his £300k bonus last year, so he obviously appreciates it's a sensitive area. And with new Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond urging him to ‘display sensitivity’, he'll be under a lot of pressure from his ultimate paymasters to do the same again this time round.
In today's bulletin:
Bank of England Governor turns down pay hike - as job gets harder?
BP coughs up for sand barriers as Tony Hayward admits to failings
Punctuality up, but profits down - Network Rail under fire again
John Vincent: Brands should be wonderful from the inside
Coffee power is just a bunch of froth?