The chief executive of Network Rail resigned unexpectedly yesterday, saying he could not commit to the Government-owned company during its next round of financing talks.
Iain Coucher, whose salary is about three times that of the Prime Minister and has been criticised as excessive, has been with the group since it took over responsibility for the infrastructure of the UK's railways from Railtrack in 2002. He has been chief executive for the past three years.
Yesterday, he denied that that his decision to quit was related to a letter sent last month to Network Rail's chairman, Rick Haythornthwaite. The letter, from the new Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, warned the group about excessive payments. "My decision to leave has nothing to do with any discussions over remuneration," he said.
Last year Mr Coucher waived an annual bonus of £300,000, but he did accept a £150,000 payment as part of a three-year management performance scheme. His basic salary is about £600,000 a year.
"Network Rail is in the first year of a five-year funding cycle," he said. "We are now starting discussions about the cycle about the next four or five years. The company needs someone in place until at least 2014 or 2015 and I do not feel that I can give that commitment." He added that he would stay in place until a new chief executive was found.
His resignation drew a mixed reaction from the rail industry. Anthony Smith, the chief executive of the passenger group, Passenger Focus, praised Mr Coucher's leadership: "Britain's rail passengers will thank Iain Coucher for what he has achieved at Network Rail. His relentless attention to getting more trains on time... has helped underpin the gradual rise in rail passenger satisfaction over the last few years."
However, the new Transport Secretary refused to comment on Mr Coucher's departure, or on his record. A spokesman for the Department for Transport said that the decision was "a matter for Network Rail".
In his letter, Mr Hammond said that Network Rail's remuneration committee "will need to bear in mind the potential for damage to the company's reputation if senior management remuneration is widely perceived to be excessive in relation to performance". Network Rail receives about £4bn a year in public funding. Its profits fell by 4.5 per cent last year, to £1.98bn.
Earlier this month, the chief executive of the Office of Rail Regulation, Bill Emery, said that Network Rail's performance over the last year had been mixed. "There are some positives... However, in some areas, we consider that the level of our intervention and the pressure we needed to apply went above what should have been required." Mr Emery said yesterday that the industry should "applaud Iain Coucher's major contribution to our improving mainline railway[s]".
Others in the industry were less charitable. Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT union, said: "As far as we are concerned it's good riddance to Iain Coucher. He has presided over a culture at Network Rail that has attacked jobs, working conditions and rail safety at the sharp end while his salary and perks have gone through the roof."
Mr Coucher declined to rate his performance out of 10, but said: "I am enormously proud of what the Network Rail team has achieved over the past eight years. Britain's railway is now on a sure footing for the future."