Amol Rajan: One bonus that would have offered value for money

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Justine Greening, the ambitious Transport minister, said over the weekend that she would turn up at a specially convened meeting of Network Rail's board this Friday, to register a protest vote against the £20m bonus pool its executives had threatened to award themselves.

Ms Greening's would have been only one of 80 votes cast, and non-binding. What particularly irked her, and her masters in government, was the proposed £340,000 bonus to be awarded to Network Rail's Australian chief executive, Sir David Higgins, on top of his £560,000 basic salary.

The threat of Ms Greening's arrival at Network Rail's offices in King's Cross clearly spooked the company, because yesterday they decided to abandon their bonuses after all. Like with Stephen Hester, the RBS boss who gave up his bonus, this victory for social stigma is in the public interest. But on reading the news yesterday, I felt an alarming degree of sympathy for Sir David.

When I had sporadic dealings with him, in his former capacity as chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, and mine as sports news correspondent for The Independent, Sir David was an extremely impressive figure. (He wouldn't now recognise me on the street). Calm, erudite, and charming, he braved the howls of protest over the budget for London 2012, and delivered the construction phase ahead of time and well below budget, saving the taxpayer billions.

The row over his bonus is a distraction not only from his competence as a CEO, but the wisdom he has shown, and continues to show, in relation to both London 2012 and our rail network. In yesterday's Financial Times he warned of a black swan this summer – an unforeseen, highly improbable event that has a huge impact.

Whether transport failures, terrorist attacks, or something else, the unforeseeable is bound to take place. Sir David, pictured, pointed out that the success of Games will not be defined by those black swans, but by the authorities' reaction to them. He also spoke sense on rail. For a couple of decades, before and after privatisation, "we took a holiday on renewing our train tracks", he says.

Getting our trains to European standards "requires 30 years of continuous investment". For all the outrage over fare prices, they are rising because the Government "is moving the subsidy split from the taxpayer to the passenger, and that is only fair". All this is true.

Network Rail is a curious organisation, both state-subsidised and funded by government-backed borrowing. To that degree it is right that its top executives forego their bonuses. But companies must be allowed to attract the brightest talent. The curiosity of Sir David's case is that, if it were the price we had to pay to make sure he served a public interest rather than a private one, that bonus would have been a price worth paying.

 

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