Iain Coucher: It's no time to rearrange the deckchairs, we've got a railway to run

The Business Interview: Network Rail is halfway through its transformation and punctuality is improving, its chief executive tells Sarah Arnott
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The Independent Online

As Iain Coucher walks to the floor-to-ceiling windows of his office, he is so enthusiastic that he actually rubs his hands. "This is a window on my world," says the chief executive of Network Rail, surveying an unbroken view over the railway approaches to London's Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. He is eager to point out the details. "That's our signal centre, which controls everything going north for 50 miles. That building there is Grade 1-listed, so we are having to go underneath it to build the new platform. Those tunnels under the canal are the bottleneck..."

Mr Coucher came to Network Rail from Tube Lines and before that spent 14 years at EDS. He has an unusually strong handshake and an unflinching sense of responsibility. The group's newly built (but certainly not flashy) offices are filled with screens showing real-time punctuality statistics. There are two in the reception area, one in the corridor, and another in Mr Coucher's office; there is no escaping current performance.

On screen, the 20 train operators that are Mr Coucher's customers are listed in either green, amber or red, depending on their punctuality. So far today, none is red. In fact, only one is amber and punctuality is running at 95 per cent. Mr Coucher admits it is "a pretty good day". Some 5,756 trains have arrived on time, and 292 have been late. "I didn't fix it, I promise," he says. The league table updates every minute, adding 11 trains each time at this time in the morning. "That's the scale we are operating on," he explains.

It is a testing time for Britain's rail system as recession hits passenger numbers and the public purse is strained to political breaking point. The recent furore over National Express's withdrawal from its East Coast Main Line franchise, which has been re-nationalised, is a stark example. "There must be others out there exposed to the same issues as National Express," Mr Coucher says. "What we don't know is to what extent it would have the same consequences."

Any debate about the franchise structure will touch Network Rail. The organisation is a strange, hybrid beast that emerged from the disastrous, publicly listed Railtrack. It is a private "not for dividend" company, funded by the taxpayer and overseen by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and about 100 "members" who act as its board. Mr Coucher shrugs off talk of a rethink. "Let's not keep rearranging the deckchairs because at end of the day we here to deliver service," he says. "All over the world there are different models, all of them compromises, so it is down to the industry to make it work."

In its seven years of life, Network Rail can claim some significant successes. Most importantly, safety has vastly improved since the horrors of the Hatfield crash in 2000. Punctuality is also improving – up 16 per cent last year alone – while the number of services continues to grow. There are now 24,500 trains running every weekday, compared with just 16,000 under British Rail in 1995. Approval ratings are also up, with the latest independent survey recording passenger satisfaction of 81 per cent.

But Britain's railways are still an easy target for their critics, and the debacle over the West Coast Main Line has not helped. The 10-year modernisation programme begun under Railtrack was finally completed in December, allowing almost double the number of trains on the route, with journey times significantly reduced. But since the upgrade, the line has been dogged by problems, leading to public rows with train operators and rising complaints from passengers.

In keeping with his firm handshake, Mr Coucher does not shrink from his accountability for the mess. Although the industry as a whole agreed the new services should start in December, it was up to Network Rail to deliver, he explains. "Making sure we get West Coast right is my overwhelming priority. We have to work day in day out, and hour in hour out, to drive up the level of reliability, to get from 8/10 to 9/10, and then 19/20." But he stands by the decision to go ahead with the new timetable, saying: "There is a question about whether that was the right decision, but I still think it was because of the extra frequency and faster journeys."

Notwithstanding the West Coast line's troubles, Mr Coucher defends Network Rail's incipient transformation. Because Railtrack never made the switch from public sector behemoth to service-focused, commercial gazelle, the crucial metamorphosis is up to Network Rail. "When we picked up the organisation in 2002, it was still embedded with nationalised way of doing things. For the first five years our focus was restoring confidence in safety, getting punctuality back and taking cost out," Mr Coucher says. "Now we have to set about aggressively sorting out the culture, which still has elements of old public sector way of doing things."

The problem is that updating the country's aging rail infrastructure takes lots of money. Network Rail has made major savings, cutting costs by an impressive 27 per cent over the past five years. But the target was 31 per cent and the next budget period – from 2009-14 – is even stricter. The five-year money pot contains £35bn, of which £20bn is for operations and maintenance and another £15bn for specific projects such as the mammoth Thameslink upgrade. But the new budget already has £5bn of cutbacks built in. "Basically, the ORR has said, 'Here's £35bn for £40bn of work', so we have to find more efficient ways to do it," Mr Coucher says.

Perhaps a greater worry is that the dwindling public finances will not allow minister to keep their side of the bargain. "The Government will have to take long hard look at that," Mr Coucher admits. "Although several billions of pounds go into the railways every year, it is still less than 1 per cent of GDP."

Given the emphasis on cutting costs, Mr Coucher's salary always makes the news. Last year, he was "outed" as the highest-paid public sector worker, so he gave up £300,000 of his £500,000-plus bonus this year in an attempt to spike stories of "fat cats". He is emphatic that his company must hire the best. "You can argue whether or not it means me personally, but the company needs the best people running it," he says. Is it hurtful – embarrassing, even – to be under such scrutiny? "It's part of the territory," he concedes.

Another part of the territory is to stand up for Britain's railways against anecdotally superior foreign networks. "I am called on to defend the railways all the time, and I am happy to do that," Mr Coucher says, pointing out that Britain runs 24,500 trains a day, compared with 15,000 in France. Similarly, Japan's bullet train runs only as many services as the smallest UK operator. "I would say this wouldn't I – but we are carrying record levels of passengers on a record number of trains," Mr Coucher says. "But there are 3 million people that use it everyday, so if just 1 per cent are unhappy that's still 30,000 people." That's quite a responsibility.

On the right lines: Coucher's route to the top

* He is married, with two children, and a keen amateur cyclist. Last weekend he took part in the NSPCC's annual Big Bike Ride.

* 2003-present: Deputy chief executive and then chief executive of Network Rail.

* 2002-2003: Managing director of Network Rail – which included setting up the new company to buy Railtrack and remove it from administration.

* 1999-2002: Chief executive of Tube Lines, the public-private partnership which runs three London Underground lines.

* 1985-99: Electronic Data Systems (EDS), the US IT consultancy. Different roles included heading the non-American mergers and acquisitions business, and putting together TranSys, the Private Finance Initiative consortium responsible for Transport for London ticketing operations.

* 1982-95: Hunting Engineering and Marconi.

* Mr Coucher has a BSc in aeronautical engineering.

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