A High Profile Career in Project Management

Rob Holden

The day in October 2023 that the Government announced it was axing the Birmingham to Manchester link of its multi-billion high-speed rail scheme, HS2, Rob Holden (Economics/Financial Control, 1977, Furness) was almost permanently on the phone to the media to provide insight on the scheme’s implosion, given that the HS1 high-speed railway he himself had led had been delivered on time and on budget.

Rob is clear that the problem lay in the whole concept: “HS2 was the wrong railway, designed to go up to 400 km/h and trains will never travel at speed in this country, because our country is different in terms of geography. The costs of building a railway operating at 400 km/h is disproportionate to the cost of building one to run at 300 km/h and even 300km/h is not necessary for the UK as on HS1 they only reach that speed for a maximum of three minutes on any run.”

These are the words of a man whose career has been dominated by the management of some of the UK’s largest and most expensive transport and nuclear projects - the completion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the train line to London St Pancras, Chief Executive of Crossrail/the Elizabeth Line (2009-2011) and years working in Barrow-in-Furness with the Trident and Trafalgar class nuclear submarines.

Even now he retains the Chairmanship of Sizewell C as well as being a Non Executive Director of Electricity North West.

“HS2 was a vanity project of the then Secretary of State for Transport and subsequent PM. The engineers were allowed to run amok and nobody took control of them,” he states. He is clear that huge projects only work if they have the buy-in of every member of the team delivering them, which he says is why HS1 was such a success.

“It happens because every person on the team believes the objective is achievable. We did not think we’d meet our deadlines, but we got people round the table and got them to buy into what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. With that buy-in you can achieve things that some people would say were unachievable,” he explains.

His time at Lancaster University was crucial to his development of these ideas on project management and financial control. He arrived at the University after dark on a National Express bus from Manchester, where he’d left his comprehensive school (Reddish Vale in Stockport) determined to be an accountant. But left three years later having sampled new ideas in management that would feed into his high-profile career.

Rob had signed up to a pure accountancy degree at Lancaster - because it was highly rated for the subject and because he was familiar with the area from annual family caravan holidays in the South Lakes. He was the first winner of the Arthur Young Prize for accountancy, but recognised after his first year that he needed more professional options, so changed faculty and took a joint degree in Economics and Financial control.

Socially, Rob found the first term ‘very difficult’, as he describes himself then as ‘very introverted’. He was very homesick and was also overwhelmed by the transition from sixth form classes of 6-8 pupils to lecture theatre of up to 80 people. He threw himself into his academic work, and gradually branched out into college activities at Furness. His main relaxation was walking in the South Lakes with friends from university and from his childhood holidays.

He left Lancaster with a job at Arthur Young based in Manchester, but an auditing assignment landed him a secondment to the Barrow Shipyard leading to a permanent job lasting thirteen years - and a foothold into financial management. In 1996, Holden became Finance Director of London and Continental Railways ("LCR") and soon moved on to Chief Executive and Chairman of LCR and also Eurostar (UK).

Achieving construction of Sizewell C is now his biggest concern, as (at the time of writing) he contemplates an impending general election, the result of which may be fatal for its long term delivery, whoever wins.

He acknowledges that Lancaster has made a significant contribution to his career, explaining: “It was a time when management was evolving significantly and Lancaster opened my eyes to the need to be flexible and to adapt to the times. We have a more educated workforce and managers can not dictate to them. They have to consult, and the ‘in’ word is collaboration. Leaders have to make decisions - but you have to communicate and explain yourself much more than when I started my career.”

Rob was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours for services to the rail industry.

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