HS2 chief exec announces departure from £622k-a-year role

Mark Thurston will leave DfT-owned company in September after six years in post
Mark Thurston Photo: HS2 Ltd

By Jim Dunton

13 Jul 2023

The UK’s highest-paid government official has announced he is stepping down from his £622,000-a-year role at the helm of the Department for Transport-owned company delivering the High Speed Two rail network.

Mark Thurston took up post as chief executive of HS2 Ltd in March 2017, replacing Simon Kirby. He has topped the Cabinet Office’s so-called “high-earners list” of the best paid civil servants and public-body officials every year since 2018.

HS2 Ltd said its current chairman, Sir Jon Thompson – the former permanent secretary of HM Revenue and Customs, will become executive chairman of the firm for an “interim period” from October while a new chief exec is recruited.

Thurston said the next 18-24 months would see HS2 move into an “exciting new stage” and that he had agreed with the board that someone else should lead the organisation and the programme through “another defining period”.

“Leading this organisation has been the highlight of my career and a privilege from the first day – the programme has come such a long way and I want to thank everyone who has worked on the project during my time,” he said.

Transport secretary Mark Harper said Thurston had successfully overseen the start of construction on the first phase of the new rail line, which will initially link London to Birmingham, and had also helped to create tens of thousands of skilled jobs and apprenticeships across the country.

“As HS2 enters its next phase, the government remains committed to unlocking all the benefits of this flagship infrastructure scheme – increasing rail capacity, connecting communities and growing the economy,” Harper said.

Despite the commitment, the government announced a pause on elements of the wider HS2 project in March – including on the construction of its new London terminus at Euston. The move, which was part of a reprioritisation of major infrastructure projects, means the first HS2 services will only connect Birmingham with Old Oak Common in west London – potentially for a number of years.

A National Audit Office report on HS2’s work to deliver a new terminus at Euston said in March that a £2.2bn cost hike in the project had emerged, a figure almost double DfT’s available budget. Part of the motivation for the two-year pause in work on the station project is to find an “affordable and deliverable” design.

HS2 describes construction of the first phase of the new rail line as currently “at its height”, with major works taking place at more than 350 sites between London and the West Midlands.

The Cabinet Office has yet to publish its 2023 high-earners transparency data – which will provide a snapshot of people earning more than £150,000 a year as of September 2022.

Last year’s list put Thurston’s pay bracket at £620,000-£624,999. HS2 Ltd’s annual report and accounts for 2021-22 said Thurston’s total remuneration was £622,683. The company has yet to publish its annual report and accounts for 2022-23.

Almost 600 civil servants and other departmental employees featured on the 2022 high-earners list, with its upper ranks dominated by transport and energy leaders.

Although they are the UK’s most senior civil servants, cabinet secretary Simon Case and civil service chief operating officer Sir Alex Chisholm only just made the top quartile of the 2022 high-earners list. Their salary brackets were given as £200,00-£204,999.

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