David Higgins is leading the radical reform taking place in the rail sector – and it could present a great opportunity

At last! The rail sector is to get a much-needed kick up the backside. Radical reform is at the top of the agenda for David Higgins, the new broom at Network Rail - and he has an ambitious plan to help the government spend up to £8bn a year over the next five years on this crucial area of UK infrastructure.

Standing in his way is a huge logistical mess, a seemingly endless knot to pick through of organisations, supply chain partners, systems and safety issues. His predecessor Ian Croucher got a grip on the organisation but only by imposing a huge central bureaucracy. And then there is a problem of public perception. Contractors have been beaten, burned and exposed in the rail sector as performance on some areas and routes, such as the West Coast Mainline, has attracted a host of divisive headlines and negativity that is impossible to counter. These problems have prevented the body recovering its reputation following high-profile accidents such as Potters Bar and Hatfield, even though these were a decade ago.

However, there is no better person than Higgins to get the railways back on track. The well-deserved winner last week of Building’s Personality of the year award, he is a people person with an unrivalled professional pedigree. He learned his trade as a young man at Robert McAlpine, stamped his mark on the property sector, then had a crash course in politics working alongside Baroness Margaret Ford at English Partnerships and then in the daunting job of leading the Olympic Delivery Authority. He has experience of holding construction’s most ferocious bosses to account on massive projects by demanding a combination of their personal buy-in and a robust delivery scorecard. Higgins has also already begun to assemble a crack team and a key set of allies. Roy McNulty, an interim chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, will present findings next month as to the thinking behind the reform of the railways. Then it will be up to Higgins to get on with it.

He will, no doubt, have realised that the key to successful reform will be to put in place a commercially-focused programme management operation to get finances under control. This is likely to, in turn, be accompanied by a new structure that will see separate specific areas, such as the major projects brief, run as fully accountable profit centres with stand-alone managing directors. Finally, Higgins is likely to do what he did best at the ODA: keep the projects and policy of this mind-bogglingly complex organisation simple so everyone knows where they stand. In the short term, there is likely to be an onus on contractors to make cost savings and efficiencies. But if Higgins can pull it off – as he is very much expected to – Network Rail could provide that rare combination of investment, growth and an intelligent client dedicated to partnering. So now’s the time to get on board the Higgins Express.  

Tom Broughton, brand director