HomePeopleMark Carne looks back on his time at Network Rail

Mark Carne looks back on his time at Network Rail

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Mark Carne stepped down as chief executive of Network Rail in August after just under five years in the job. During that time, he gained a reputation for being passionate about safety, a keen promoter of the Digital Railway as the best way to improve capacity and network performance, and convinced that the railway was there to give its customers – the passengers – the best service possible.

His tenure wasn’t an easy one. He was involved in the aftermath of the destruction of the seawall at Dawlish, and the later one at Dover. Then there were several major landslips which closed the railway for weeks at a time, the damaging overruns of work over Christmas 2014/15 which ended up with him having to give evidence to the parliamentary committee, the delays and overspend on Great Western electrification and the shambles that was the introduction of the May 2018 timetable.

But there were high points too. The Borders Railway opened, as did the Ordsall, Ipswich and Todmorden curves. Huge new stations were successfully delivered at Reading, Birmingham and London Bridge. Billions were spent on renewing worn out sections of the railway, largely without fuss, and the safety record was vastly improved.

So, a week after Andrew Haines took over as Network Rail’s new chief executive, Rail Engineer sat down with a visibly relaxed Mark Carne to talk over his career and his achievements.

Brought up on oil

Mark joined Network Rail from Shell, part of an oil industry which has a strong safety culture. When he was just 29, the Piper Alpha oil production platform in the North Sea exploded on 6 July 1988, killing 167 people. Although not a Shell platform, it was operated by Occidental Petroleum, the disaster had a massive impact on the whole industry since, at the time, some 10 per cent of all North Sea oil and gas production came from the Piper Alpha platform.

Mark led Shell’s Piper Alpha response team, attending the public enquiry and overseeing massive upgrades on all of the company’s platforms in the North Sea. It was a big responsibility for one so young.

“I was on holiday in Cornwall on the day that it happened,” Mark recalled, “and the next morning, when the newspapers were full of it, I just got on the train and came back to the office and said, ‘What can I do to help, because we’re sure as hell going to have to do some stuff here?’ A volunteer is worth ten pressed men, as they say, and so I was quickly put into the task force and grew in that role to eventually lead it and lead the response, first in the North Sea and then two years later I went to The Hague and helped with the response internationally.

“So I saw at a relatively young age the massive impact that safety leadership, or lack of leadership, can have on businesses. It had a profound impact on me and it has completely coloured my whole approach to leadership throughout my career.”

After that early responsibility, Mark was appointed managing director of Brunei Shell Petroleum. 21 years later, he moved to BG Group as managing director for Europe and Central Asia, before moving back to Shell where he became executive vice-president for the Middle East and North Africa.

So why change jobs, and industries, to join Network Rail? Mark laughed when he was asked.

“Interestingly, there were two key factors that made me want to join rail,” he explained. “One is that, in my last job in Shell, I’d been running the Middle East during the Arab spring, and that was a pretty tough gig. I had five countries where I had to evacuate all our staff in emergency circumstances during revolutions and so on.

“But we were also developing a field in Iraq. We were building an oilfield on the site of the Iran/Iraq war and it was a massive live minefield, so our first job was to clear four thousand mines from where we were working. The challenges were huge and there were the social challenges of just dealing in Iraq with the security situation, which was very, very difficult.”

Despite the tough environment, Mark found that he was doing more than building a refinery, he was helping to rebuild a nation bringing in different ways of working and helping to change the lives of the people.

“My mind was very much driven by being motivated by things that matter to society and in wanting to run big businesses which are safety-critical. And, of course, the rail industry is exactly that, it is a business that matters enormously to the country – four and a half million people every day depend upon it – and it’s safety-critical.”

Safety behaviour

When Mark joined Network Rail, he told his management team: “I’ve got three priorities, three messages that you’ll hear from me every day for the next few years; safety and performance go hand in hand, continuous improvement or better every day, and digital railway.”

However, once in post, Mark found he was shocked at how poorly the safety performance of Network Rail, and the whole rail industry, compared to the industry he came from. A firm believer that safety and performance go hand in hand, he decided that improving safety performance would also improve business performance.

“In safety leadership, you as a leader have to be able to juggle three balls in the air at the same time,” he explained. “One is design safety, engineering safety, making sure that you’re always dealing with things in the appropriate technological way.

“Second is about process safety, the organisation of capability and resources in an efficient and effective way to deploy work safely. And the third is behaviours, personal behaviours. You can’t focus on any one to the exclusion of the others without something going wrong; you have to have all three in your sights the whole time.

“In the days of Piper Alpha, behavioural safety was just irrelevant. Frankly, technical safety was pretty poor as well and process safety wasn’t much better.

“But that was 1988. And what came from it was technical safety through the safety case and process safety. Behaviour safety didn’t come in the North Sea until about 2000, so a full twelve years later.”

There were interesting parallels with the rail industry. The Clapham Junction disaster happened in the same year as Piper Alpha, 1988, and Mark accepts that a lot was learnt then in the rail industry about technical safety and, in that particular case, about process safety, the management of time and the hidden rules. But the behaviour safety journey didn’t follow in the rail industry in the way that it did in the oil industry.

“I think one of the things that attracted me to this job, and the reason why, ultimately, I decided I wanted to do this job, was because of the safety performance. I thought there was a really fascinating opportunity for somebody coming from a different industry, with the experience that I had, to help to make a difference in that area, and think it’s been a fascinating journey over the last few years to see the progress that has been made.”


Mark joined Network Rail in January 2014, having been appointed in September 2013. It was a time of change for the organisation and Mark stepped right into the middle of it.

When he arrived, Network Rail was still an independent company. However, all the assurances were that reclassification wouldn’t change anything. Those assurances proved to be wholly inaccurate.

“It was a huge change”, Mark admitted. “The people who ran Network Rail and the rail industry in CP4 (Control Period 4 – 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2014) did an amazingly good job of persuading the government to carry out the biggest rail upgrade programme in the history of the railways and to invest in the massive projects that we had to deliver in CP5. They also knew that the amount of development work that had been done on those projects was really very, very limited – they were literally just ideas.

“So, recognising that immaturity, they developed, with the regulator, a cost adjustment mechanism (ECAM) which meant that the final cost and timescales of these projects that were in a very early stage of development could be set further down the line and more funds be made available by the regulator so long as it was economic sense to do so. Hats off to the team in CP4 who persuaded government and developed a regulatory structure that would manage the risk.”

The problem, however, was that no one anticipated reclassification and the Treasury then refusing to advance the organisation any more money. That changed everything, because it meant that suddenly Network Rail was left with a portfolio of very immature projects, which were going to cost a lot more than was originally thought, with no means of paying for them as the regulatory ECAM process had been decapitated.

It all came to a head in 2015 after the general election, although it was obvious in the months beforehand that this was a massive problem, and ultimately led to the Hendy Review.

Photo: Crown Copyright.
Visiting Dawlish with Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: Crown Copyright.


The organisation faced other challenges too. Mark Carne joined Network Rail in January, with the intention of having three months to get to know the company before taking over the reins from Sir David Higgins in April, at the start of CP5. However, on 7 February 2014, a storm destroyed the sea wall at Dawlish and the railway that ran behind it, effectively cutting part of Devon and all of Cornwall off from the national rail network.

“I’d done a fair bit of touring by then,” Mark remembered, “so David and I just agreed that I would take over at that point in time, which was right decision because both of us knew that you can’t have ambiguous leadership at those times; people have to be really clear who’s in charge. And I was very hands-on with Dawlish.

There was massive political pressure to get the railway reopened as quickly as possible, including weekly COBRA (Cabinet Office briefing room A, where ministers and officials meet in response to major events and emergencies) meetings chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron.

“It taught me a lot about the heroic over-optimistic assumptions that people make and how quickly that can get you into trouble,” Mark recalled. “I remember meeting with the team the day before the Secretary of State came down to see me, in the first few days of the problem, and I said to them: ‘So how long is it going to take?’ – this was in the late evening – and they said: ‘Oh we’ll fix this in six weeks.’

“I said to them: ‘Where’s the plan to show the six weeks’ and they said: ‘Well, we haven’t really got a plan, it’s just our judgement as experienced railway engineers. It’s about a six-week job.’ And I said: ‘I’m sorry, guys, but that isn’t really good enough and I’m not going to sit in front of the Secretary of State tomorrow and tell him six weeks if I haven’t got a plan, so dinner’s off.’

“So, they all rather shamefacedly left the dinner table, went into a dark room and about one o’clock in the morning I got a phone call saying: ‘Okay, we’ve now got a plan.’ I came down and they rolled out the plan and they said: ‘Look, you see, we can do it in six weeks.’

“I asked: ‘How much float have you got in your six weeks?’ ‘Oh, there’s no float.’ ‘So what’s the probability of success of you delivering it in six weeks?’ ‘Well, pretty much zero, because everything has to go right.’

“Then I said: ‘Okay, we’re not going to say six weeks, are we? I’m going to say ten weeks.’ They said: ‘You can’t say that, they’ll go mad.’ I said: ‘I’m going to say ten weeks until you’ve got a better plan, basically.’

“And Cameron did go a bit mad, he was very unhappy about it. But then what happened was we got a bit of confidence, started work, and then we brought it back to nine weeks, then eight weeks and we delivered it in about seven. The point was that we didn’t over-promise and under-deliver, completely the opposite, we said it was going to take longer and then over-delivered, and we were national heroes.”

David Cameron still remembers it. Meeting Mark Carne at an event recently, the former Prime Minister recalled it as “one of the best days of my entire time as Prime Minister.”

He went on to explain that very seldom does a Prime Minister go to a town or a village to find that every single person is out cheering his great achievement. It never happens – but it did at Dawlish.

Mark can understand how he felt. “We got there on the train together and the whole of Dawlish, the brass band and the Women’s Institute and the Morris dancers and the Girl Guides, they were all out to welcome the reopening of the railway; it was just a great day of celebration and it was terrific, it was a great moment.”

With 10 apprentices from 10 years of the scheme.
With 10 apprentices from 10 years of the scheme.

Christmas 2014/5

But it wasn’t all brass bands and Morris dancers. Almost a year later, Network Rail deployed 11,000 people over Christmas 2014/5 to work on 2,000 sites around the country. However, in the national press afterwards, the story wasn’t about the 314 projects that were handed back on time, it was about the eight that weren’t. Or, more exactly, it was about two of the eight that weren’t. That seems like a very small number, but those two delays did shut two of London’s main termini – King’s Cross and Paddington.

Unsurprisingly, everyone took this very seriously. Mark Carne made a public apology and pledged that an internal report on what went wrong would be prepared and published. That duly happened. Written by Dr Francis Paonessa, the managing director of Network Rail Infrastructure Projects, it was published on Monday 12 January. Mark and Robin Gisby, managing director of Network Operations and the duty director over the Christmas holiday, then met with the Commons Select Committee on Wednesday 14 January. It was a very public embarrassment for all at Network Rail.

Looking back on it, Mark now thinks that the “debacle” – his word – was actually, in many ways, a blessing in disguise.

“It was really a poorly run job. It was very, very much hand to mouth. Francis Paonessa wrote a very good and open report about it and exposed all the weaknesses in a very open way and you could really see there was no contingency plan – there were lots and lots of lessons that could be learnt from it.

“The reason why I think it was a blessing was because it was very early in the control period and we immediately put in place all sorts of enhancements and an improvement plan and started to say: ‘This must never happen again, how are we going to work fundamentally differently?’

“And we’ve had fourteen Bank Holidays of work since then, carrying out the biggest programme of works ever, and we’ve never had another repeat event or anything even remotely like it. I think that’s down to the fact that, today, going into a Bank Holiday, or into any weekend’s work, the amount of preparation and planning and contingency planning is just of a completely different order than was the case in 2014.”

Of course, one way to make sure no project overruns is to put so much padding into the programme that it can’t.

“It’s inevitable that people are going to be conservative and I think we need to recognise that,” he admitted. “I think we’re probably less conservative now than we were three years ago. As you get better and better at managing it, you are able to reduce the float; you are able to be smarter about the times when you will trigger the contingency plans. So I don’t think we are excessively conservative today, but I do think the risk/reward equation inevitably means that you’re going to have a pretty risk-averse approach to these sorts of opportunities.

“If you’re just a few hours late and you don’t get the people into work on the day after the Bank Holiday then it’s a really huge problem for hundreds of thousands of people and I think we need to take those responsibilities very seriously – and we do.

“Before every Bank Holiday we hold an executive review and sometimes a Board review, and the train operators are in the room, so we ask the train operators just as many questions as our own teams. During the debacle at King’s Cross, there was no passenger handling by GTR of the people at Finsbury Park, there was no contingency plan, and so it was as much a failure of the train operator’s contingency arrangements as ours. I take the blame for that, because we never asked them to even prepare those contingency plans, that was the failure. Today, we do.”

Joining Air Vice-Marshall Graham Russell to re-sign Network Rail's Armed Force Covenant on Reservists Day.
Joining Air Vice-Marshall Graham Russell to re-sign Network Rail’s Armed Force Covenant on Reservists Day.

GW electrification

Two other well-publicised problems during Mark’s tenure as chief executive have been Great Western electrification going over budget and over time, and the recent chaos caused by the introduction of the new timetable on 20 May 2018. He was quite happy to give his views on both.

“Great Western, clearly, was an example of an extremely immaturely planned project. The problem with it was that the dates that had been indicated and promised meant that people felt the need to go out and start building stuff before we’d even designed it, before we knew what it was we were even building, and so the whole project got into a very bad place.

“But I would say that I’m very proud of Great Western actually. People find this a bit strange, because I’ve had to take such a lot of stick in the Public Accounts Committee and so on, but we re-based that project in 2015, a year and a half into the control period, and we are absolutely on track to meet every date that we said we would meet, and pretty much bang on cost as well. From what we said in 2015, the team have done a phenomenal job of delivering it, and to hit every single construction milestone, either on the date or early, as Great Western have done in the last three years, which is an absolutely staggering achievement because it’s an incredibly tough project.”

So is that what Mark and Network Rail want to do in the future, to get projects to that level of maturity before they start the job?

“Absolutely, exactly that, which is the approach that we’re taking on TransPennine. Two years ago, or just over two years ago, I was under a lot of pressure from the government at the time to commit to dates and projects and so on and I just said: ‘No, we’ll do a study and we’ll deliver you a study by December 2017 and then you can decide what it is you want to buy and then we’ll go and build it.’

“And that’s what we did, we gave them the study, the government are now considering that report and they will decide what project they then want to buy and we’ll build it and we’ll make a massive success of it. So this is lesson 101 of all project management in any industry, whether it’s the oil industry or the rail industry, is do your homework, do the upfront design work, take the time to do it right, understand really what it is you’re trying to build, what the specification should be and then you’ve got a fair chance of delivering it – if you rush into it, it always goes wrong.”


The other ‘own goal’, or one for which the press seemed to put some of the blame on Network Rail, was the introduction of the May 2018 timetable, which rescheduled a huge number of trains and which resulted in cancellations and delays, much to the noisy annoyance of passengers.

“Just to be really clear, there’s nothing wrong with the timetable,” was Mark Carne’s somewhat surprising comment. “The timetable is fine, the problem is the resourcing of the timetable. The industry, as a whole, hasn’t got enough train crew with the right level of competencies to operate the timetable and the problem is that the timetabling process didn’t give the train operators enough time to develop those skills. We’ll have to wait and see what the Glaister Report concludes, of course, but I think it’s an example of a total system failure – you’ve got little elements of the system all optimising their parts, but the total system doesn’t work.”

This is not, in Mark’s opinion, a new and isolated instance. The Gibb Report of 2016, looking at the performance of the Southern Rail network, said basically the same thing, that the system has not been designed to actually provide the level of performance that the railway needs.

“You’ve got a timetable where the operator has filled the middle of the day with trains so there’s no ability to recover between the two peaks, you’re running trains all through the night so we can’t get on and maintain the railway, you’ve got a train crew diagram system which is theoretically brilliant but practically useless, which all means that, as soon as one train is delayed, there’s a huge cascade knock-on effect to other trains.

“So, there are lots and lots of system-wide problems which no one individual is accountable for resolving. There’s no one person that’s overseeing all of those different elements and making sure that they work and there’s no one person that is ensuring that, if there’s a problem in one area, we all understand the implications of that problem to the other parts of the system.”

Visiting Basingstoke with apprentices Tanushri Gukhool and Princess Balun.
Visiting Basingstoke with apprentices Tanushri Gukhool and Princess Balun.

Specific cases

The two biggest problems occurred in implementing the timetables for Northern and GTR. However, Mark feels that the two cases were slightly different.

“Northern was definitely impacted by the delayed infrastructure and therefore the change to the timetable that we ‘imposed’. We had offered them back a timetable, we then said: ‘No, we have to change it’ because the Bolton Corridor couldn’t be electrified, so they then had to go and rework it all again and come back. So definitely Network Rail infrastructure delays were a key contributory factor to the Northern situation.

“GTR is different because the infrastructure was all there. The problem was that there were lots of changes to the timetable being made by the industry, by government, by GTR, at the request of various people and that led to lots of late changes to the timetable which then ultimately didn’t give GTR enough time to check that they had enough drivers with the competencies needed to run the trains.

“The really worrying thing in both cases, I think, is that the alarm bells were not ringing in the weeks running up to the May timetable, so we were collectively unsighted on the scale of the problem. Again, that comes back to, where was the integrated leadership where this should have come together? And it is concerning because, in the case of GTR, we did have integrated leadership through the Industry Readiness Board, which was put in place to manage those integrated risks.

“But I think what that shows is that, if you put in place a board with some very competent people in it, and still they’re not able to identify the risks, in a way it just shows how incredibly complicated these systems have become but also how vulnerable they are to single point failures.”


However, Mark’s time at Network Rail hasn’t been all doom and gloom. There have been many successes as well. What did he think were the most significant?

“The delivery of the biggest railway upgrade programme in the history of the railway,” was Mark’s immediate answer. “Despite all the massive challenges and the setbacks that we’ve had along the way, I think delivering that programme is something that the industry should be proud of because millions of passengers will benefit from these projects for decades to come.

“But I think that this is an industry where you also have to adjust to the crisis of the moment, and if you think about some of the issues that we’ve also had to deal with over this time, where we’ve had the railway washed away in Dawlish, the railway washed away at Dover, we’ve had massive landslips at Harbury, at Eden Brows and at Hatfield. We’ve had to deal with these really challenging sets of circumstances at the same time as driving operational performance and delivering these massive projects and I think there’s a lot there to be very proud of.

“And, of course, going back to where we started, I am very encouraged by the progress that the company has made on the safety side. I think that, although we continue to have near misses and all the rest of it, no Network Rail employee and nobody working on the track, contractor or Network Rail, lost their life in the four and a half years. Now, we had six fatalities in the construction part of the business. Five of them were road traffic accidents, and one of them the terrible Bearsden incident, but we’ve made great progress – a 39 per cent reduction in lost time injury and a 39 per cent reduction in train accident risk.

“It’s not me, I haven’t done it. What you try to do is to create the environment which allows people to do that and it’s just wonderful when they do it.”

Safety isn’t the only area that has seen big improvements. Network Rail recently achieved 17 per cent of its workforce being women for the first time, which goes back to the second of Mark’s business priorities – continuous improvement or better every day.

“People today would recognise that diversity and inclusion drives better business performance,” Mark commented. “It’s not about political correctness, this is about actually wanting to be a better performing company and you become a better company if you have different ideas, different ways of thinking in your organisation, and that’s what diversity really brings.

“I’m really encouraged by the progress that has been made in the understanding of why this is important and in the belief that it’s important that we should do something about it, but of course we’re still only scratching the surface of the scale of the challenge. We’ve made a really concerted effort to have a gender equality approach to recruitment which then enables us to attract more very capable women to want to come and work in the rail industry.”

Celebrating success at the 2018 Rail Partnership Awards as host Alexander Armstrong looks on.
Celebrating success at the 2018 Rail Partnership Awards as host Alexander Armstrong looks on.

Unfinished business

Mark’s time at Network Rail isn’t quite over. He is staying on to present the organisation’s case for CP6 funding to the regulator, as he has been intimately involved in its preparation. But then he will go. What will he leave unfinished?

“This is a never-ending journey, and so there are lots of things which are unfinished business. Even the devolution process – I always said that the full devolution of Network Rail would take ten years and we’re five or six years into that process, so there’s still a lot of work to do on it, but I do believe the back is broken on that and we’ve made massive progress.

“But I have two regrets that I would talk about particularly. One is that, in the early years when CP5 was so obviously in real problems, I think we just tried almost too hard to keep it going rather than saying: ‘You know what, this is a material change, we need a rethink.’ Because, unfortunately, we needed an absolute crisis to trigger that moment in 2015 but I think, looking back at it, we all knew it was going to come.

“This is where politics comes in. In the run-up to the election it was absolutely obvious we were in huge problems, but it was politically not acceptable to fully expose that. And so, we were all trying desperately to keep a brave face on things. But, as soon as the election was over, you couldn’t do that anymore, and so Patrick McLoughlin said: ‘Okay, we need to make some changes here, we’ve got to sort this out. There is no more money so we, as government, have to make some choices about what projects to deliver.’

“Sir Peter Hendy’s first task as the new Chairman was to manage that process of the government deciding what it wanted to buy. In the Hendy Review, what Peter did, quite rightly, was to say: ‘You can’t afford everything you want, this portfolio of projects is going to cost much more than you thought. These projects are all underway and I think you should carry on with them. These ones haven’t started yet; it makes sense to push them back.’ But it was as much a government review as anything else.

“My point is the timing of it. If we could have done it earlier, it would have been better.”

However, in making that comment, Mark isn’t talking about the arguments for or against renationalisation of the railways. Network Rail, is, of course, already nationalised, but the operating companies are not, with the current exception of LNER.

“I don’t think the ultimate shareholding is the key question here. The key question is, how do you assemble the parts of the railway in such a way that they work seamlessly and most efficiently together in the interests of passengers? That’s what I want to see happen. I actually think there’s a huge advantage in having private sector involvement in whatever model you have, but it doesn’t need to be private sector ownership.

“I have private sector involvement in all of the projects that we deliver; they’re delivered by the private sector, they’re all private sector contracting entities that take risk on the delivery of projects. You can do the same thing in the way in which train operators operate; you don’t have to use the current franchise model, you can use different kinds of contract models to engage train operations.”

Another of the areas that the private sector is beginning to get involved with is the digital railway – the third of Mark’s three business priorities.

“I unashamedly pinched David Waboso from TFL,” he admitted, “because he had already delivered a digital railway (London Underground) and I needed somebody who could deliver a digital railway and who had the respect and understanding of the supply chain and the industry.

“We – Network Rail, government, and the wider rail industry – have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to get the concept of a digital railway off the ground. It is now a reality. We now have a plan, the impetus and the funding, to introduce these systems across large swathes of our railway network over the coming years.

“Transforming our railway into the digital age offers the chance to deliver huge benefits for our passengers and the freight that this country depends on. It is the most cost-efficient way to deliver the future railway Britain needs.

“So, the digital railway is the key to unlocking a lot of latent capacity in the railway. But, if you’re going to bring digital train control onto the railway, why not let the private sector invest in the digital train control to enable the trains to run?

“They can then benefit from the incremental capacity that the digital railway will bring, the incremental farebox revenue and so on, and they can use that incremental revenue to help fund and pay for the necessary upgrades to the train control system.

“These are the ways that the model is going to have to evolve; I think the black and white days of government funded infrastructure and privately funded train operations have passed.

“I think there needs to be a wider debate about the right way to organise the railway so that it operates in the most seamless and effective way, and then you think about, given that organisation, which bits of it now should you enable the private sector to contribute to and to compete for? And some of that will be construction, some of it may be operations and some if it may be ticketing or something.

“Why not?”

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