HS2 boss quits weeks before key decision on its future

Chief executive accused of getting out before 'true scale of mess he has presided over is realised'

Sally Guyoncourt
Sunday 11 September 2016 11:18 BST
The £55bn scheme is the largest infrastructure project in Europe
The £55bn scheme is the largest infrastructure project in Europe (PA)

The boss of the UK's controversial high speed rail link network has quit just weeks before a key decision on the project’s future.

Simon Kirby has left his position as chief executive to take up the role as chief operating officer at Rolls-Royce.

His departure comes just a matter of weeks before Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is expected to decide on phase two of the route from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester this autumn.

The £55bn scheme is the largest infrastructure project in Europe and, with a salary of £750,000 a year, Mr Kirby was the UK’s highest paid civil servant.

David Higgins, chairman of HS2, told the FT: “Simon Kirby used his vast experience to recruit and shape a world-class team which over the coming years and decades will turn HS2 into a reality that will be of lasting benefit to this country.”

Mr Higgins added that the search for a new chief executive would be carried out at the same time as they recruit for the newly-created position of chief operating officer.

But Mr Kirby’s departure has been heavily criticised by campaigners opposed to the high-speed rail link, who claim he has made little progress since his appointment in 2014.

Joe Rukin, campaign manager for Stop HS2, said: “When Simon Kirby was at Network Rail, he presided over failing projects with inflating costs and delays, but got out before anyone noticed how bad it really was.

“With HS2 deadlines constantly put back, spiralling costs, secret reports and devastating analyses of the project from every independent body which has investigated it, you can’t help think he is doing the same thing again, getting out before the true scale of the mess he has presided over is realised.

“The departure of Simon Kirby will be a serious blow to those who champion HS2, though many of us are at a complete loss to see just exactly what it is he has done to justify his three-quarter of a million pay packet.”

Mr Kirby joined the HS2 project in May 2014, after leaving the board of Network Rail, to steer one of the UK’s most controversial infrastructure projects.

Phase one of the high speed rail link, due to be completed in 2026, will run from London to Birmingham. While the second phase, which would connect the Midlands with the North of England, was expected to be given royal assent in December this year with work beginning in 2017.

But the project has been beset by delays and problems since the start with those opposing it claiming its environmental impact and cost far outweighs any advantages it may bring.

HS2 Ltd chief executive Simon Kirby is the UK’s highest paid civil servant, on an annual salary of £750,000
HS2 Ltd chief executive Simon Kirby is the UK’s highest paid civil servant, on an annual salary of £750,000

In May this year, the head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood began investigating HS2 amid fears it could not be built within its £55bn budget and the following month the National Audit Office warned it could be delayed by a year.

Speaking about his move to engineering firm Rolls-Royce, Mr Kirby said: “The ability to deliver major programmes on time and to budget is essential, and I am looking forward to bringing my experience to bear on these complex challenges and to leading the current programme of industrial transformation.”

Mr Kirby will now oversee a restructuring programme at Rolls-Royce designed to reduce costs and cut out bureaucracy.

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