Ex-rail chief boards National Express

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Richard Bowker, the former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, was named yesterday as the new chief executive of the train, bus and coach group National Express.

Mr Bowker, 40, will take up the £1m-a-year job in September when Phil White, National Express's long-serving chief executive, retires after spending the past decade running the business.

A controversial choice for the post in some people's estimation, Mr Bowker lost his job as the most senior official in charge of Britain's railways when Alistair Darling scrapped the SRA in 2004 and took responsibility for the strategic direction of the network and the awarding of passenger franchises back into the Department for Transport.

Mr Bowker was regarded as a tough-talking figure who clashed not only with ministers but also senior figures in the industry, notably the chief executive of FirstGroup, Moir Lockhead, who was incensed after the SRA kicked it out of the bidding process for the Greater Anglia franchise.

David Ross, the National Express chairman, rejected suggestions the board had taken a risk in appointing Mr Bowker. "Obviously, as part of the proper process we did our due diligence and Richard would not have been appointed unless we thought the commercial risk and reward was worth it," he said. "There was only one choice for chief executive and he is it. We are delighted with his appointment."

Mr Bowker said he had spoken with ministers and DfT officials in recent weeks and they were "genuinely looking forward to working together again".

Speaking of his three years at the SRA, he said: "I got asked to do a particular job which was very clear and involved banging heads together to get things done. We did in the end get things sorted out, like the west coast main line and the power supply to the Southern network, by direct intervention and some tough talking. The truth is that, despite all the stuff that was said, 99.9 per cent of the time, I had an excellent, open, transparent and businesslike relationship with government."

Mr Bowker, a former chairman of Virgin Rail before he joined the SRA, said some people would take his appointment as a sign National Express would begin to focus more on rail, having seen FirstGroup overtake it as the country's biggest train operator recently. But he said he had an open mind and highlighted the way its coach business had come on in leaps and bounds, in particular with the £461m acquisition last year of Spain's biggest long-distance coach operator, Alsa.

"I believe passionately in the customer and I believe the transport industry has a lot to do to deliver a consistent, high-quality customer service," he said.