Network Rail nabs Olympics boss Higgins as its new CEO

The Olympics is currently on schedule and on budget. But can David Higgins keep the trains running on time?

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Network Rail has chosen its new boss: David Higgins, currently head of London's Olympic Delivery Authority, will replace Iain Coucher as CEO in February. It looks like a bit of a coup for the rail infrastructure operator: Higgins has an excellent reputation, not least because the ODA looks on course to achieve the almost impossible - delivering a major UK construction project on time and under budget. Then again, even this might seem like a stroll in the Olympic Park compared to some of the problems he'll be facing in his new job...

Network Rail says it ran an 'extensive search process' before appointing Higgins, with some 500 candidates apparently applying for the job. But in the end, it didn't look too far from home: Higgins has been a non-exec director there since earlier this year, and former NR chief exec John Armitt, who's now the chairman of the ODA, will no doubt have been able to provide a glowing testimonial. Anyway, NR chairman Rick Heythornthwaite said he was the 'outstanding candidate'.

And we can see why. The Australian-born Higgins has done a fair dinkum ripper of a job at the ODA, the quango that's responsible for developing the infrastructure for London 2012 (as opposed to LOCOG, which will actually run the Games). Given that everyone knows it's entirely impossible to get any UK-based builders to finish a job on time, for the price they originally quoted, the fact that the Olympic Park is set to cost around £7.26bn, less than the budgeted £8.1bn, is nothing short of a minor miracle. And although it might seem odd to leave now, before the Park is finished, we suppose he might as well take a big job when he can, as opposed to when he has to.

But however well he's done at the ODA, he won't have an easy time at Network Rail. Since he's currently Britain's highest-paid quango chief, he'll have some insight into the ongoing row about the CEO's salary - albeit his new chairman has already said that he won't be paid as much as Coucher (he can still expect a big pay hike, mind). Then there are the longer term issues. First and foremost is the impact of the spending cuts on NR's future budgets - he may find himself having to deliver the same level of service (or even more) for less, in an industry where mistakes can cost lives. And he'll also have to think about planning for Britain's high-speed rail future, in an era when funding is likely to be in short supply.

Still, this is a man who has made Britain's construction industry look world-class. So if anyone can do it…

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