Company Vitae: Network Rail

Owner and operator of Britain's rail infrastructure (but not its trains), this state-owned private company is never far from controversy. So how well does it manage to run the railways?

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Formative years

Network Rail was created by government decree in 2002 after the Hatfield crash in which four people died as a result of maintenance failures by its predecessor, Railtrack. Network Rail was supposed to lay the ghosts of both Railtrack and long-standing national joke British Rail by making the trains run safely and on time.

Its job is to run the UK rail infrastructure - 20,000 miles of track, 40,000 bridges and tunnels and major stations, such as King's Cross - and to provide a 'level playing field', with the various train operating companies (TOCs) competing to run the trains.

We Brits love to moan about our trains and Network Rail has been embroiled in plenty of more serious rows too, from pay and staff disputes to a series of fatal incidents that culminated in January's announcement of criminal proceedings over the Greyrigg crash in 2007.

Recent history

Despite hordes of angry commuters claiming otherwise, punctuality has risen steadily under Network Rail from below 80% to hit a record 91.5% in 2009-10. But the signs are that it may have peaked and both the UK's ageing system and Network Rail's management are struggling to keep up (over 1.4 billion passenger journeys are expected to be made this year). Fares are among the highest in Europe and last month Network Rail was forced to apologise for health and safety failings that led to the deaths of teenagers Olivia Bazlinton and Charlotte Thompson in December 2005. Because of this, boss David Higgins waived his £336,000 bonus. The prospect of the £30bn high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham is one bright spot on the UK rail horizon.

Who's the boss?

Chief executive Higgins is an Australian-born career quangocrat, who joined from the Olympic Delivery Authority in February 2011.

The secret formula?

What most vexes industry watchers is whether Network Rail is a public good or a private enterprise. The taxpayer foots most of the bill and yet its bosses get lavish private-sector rewards. Its levels of accountability have also been called into question - who is to gainsay targets if they are set too low, or salaries too high, ask critics.

Don't mention

Pakistan. The rail network there is about to be part-privatised and the authorities intend to model their new system on the, er, British one. So Pakistanis may soon have their own version of Network Rail to add to their troubles.

Miles of track: 20,000
Stations owned: 850
Funding: £12bn (2009-14)
Employees: 35,000
Source: Network Rail

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