The rail deal

For the regular UK train traveller, moaning about the perceived shortcomings of our rail network is almost as much a national pastime as discussing the weather.

It is, we complain, over-priced, plagued by delays and engineering works and too easily brought to its knees by the gentle extremes of the British climate.

Little wonder then that a government embarrassed by the excesses of top executives in certain other industries is putting pressure on Network Rail to curb the bonuses of its top bosses: last year its chief executive Iain Coucher awarded himself a bonus worth £511,000.

But are these perceptions completely fair? Could Britons, with their not entirely unhealthy cultural predisposition toward scepticism, be wrong about the railways?

Not surprisingly, Coucher thinks we are. While acknowledging that there’s plenty of room for improvement, Coucher mounted an impassioned defence for the work of the rail operator when he spoke to The Engineer recently.

A serious man, presiding over a £35bn five-year programme of investments aimed at boosting capacity, Coucher is keen to distance himself from the Fred Goodwins of the world. Backing up each point with reference to the real-time stats that are beamed into his office, our rail system is, he claimed ‘a success story’, with train numbers, passenger numbers and punctuality higher than at any point in the network’s history. Coucher is also clearly fed up with hearing about how great the railways in other countries are, telling The Engineer that ‘we run more trains in Kent on a daily basis than they do in Switzerland’.

Whether or not one agrees with the analysis of UK rail as a success story – and passenger experiences do vary across the network – what is certain is that the railways certainly represent a rare oasis of opportunity for UK engineers. Coucher claims to be presiding over the biggest investment in the rail system since the days of Brunel. And this will require new engineers and new technology, from the heavy engineering of new bridges or tracks to the smart sensing techniques that detect obstacles, breaks in the rails and help to boost safety.

Read the full interview with Iain Coucher next week in The Engineer and The Engineer Online.

Jon Excell
Deputy Editor