Almost five years after Network Rail took control of the UK’s railway infrastructure, head of legal Hazel Walker has finally found time to breathe.
Walker and her team have been on the hop since the takeover of the troubled Railtrack in 2002. The former legal chief at Scottish and Southern Energy, Walker admits she took something of a punt when she was headhunted to head Network Rail’s legal department.
But then again, Walker is not your average kind of legal chief. For starters she has held a string of senior legal positions since the age of 28. But just before her 40th birthday she decided it was time to leave the high-flying role at Scottish and Southern Energy for a year-long backpacking trip.
“I had a fear that if I didn’t go backpacking then I wouldn’t ever go, but the desire to fulfil something that I hadn’t done as a student was probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life,” she says.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the UK’s rail company was at breaking point following the Hatfield crash in 2000. Severe financial difficulties due to shareholder revolt and passenger resentment followed, and a year later Railtrack was put into administration.
Network Rail took over and was faced with the massive task of restoring public confidence. Walker had returned from her year out and joined the company as the deal was struck in 2002.
Walker was forced to rebuild the 15-lawyer team, which had been slashed by 70 only a few years before. Part of the process involved recruiting an additional six specialist lawyers experienced in litigation, property and compliance.
And once again Walker is ramping up the company’s in-house capabilities. The department has expanded by four in recent months, although the mission to fill the gaps proved difficult due to the heightened competition between companies to attract top-class in-house lawyers.
Thankfully the hard work has paid off, with train punctuality now standing at its highest level in six years.
Network Rail controls the UK railways’ infrastructure, including thetracks, signals, tunnels, bridges, level crossings and stations. For the legal team that means juggling a variety of risks.
Walker explains: “My team’s at the forefront of a variety of issues, given that we’re the second-largest landowner in the country and have five million neighbours as we back on to people’s gardens.
“We work in such a unique environment, and from a lawyer’s point of view it’s a fascinating structure.”
Looking to the future, Walker is embarking on a new challenge – to prepare for the 2012 Olympic Games in London. In 2006 Network Rail invested £3bn towards upgrades of the city’s transport network and improvements in communication between train drivers and signallers.
“In terms of the legal aspects our job is enormous, even though this is not our project,” she says.
As the legal team prepares to embark of its biggest project yet, Walker could be forgiven for feeling nervous.
“The Olympics is such a massive thing to handle for the number of people who’ll be going through the city at that time. Part of that process involves building 27 new bridges,” says Walker.
“I say my panel is an extension of my team and, because of that, I spend a great amount of my time briefing the firms on yearly results,” she explains.
Walker, a qualified barrister, believes that employed barristers are slowly gaining acceptance from their peers.
“Today the position has moved forward significantly to the point were it’s okay to be an employed barrister,” says Walker. “As for whether barristers make good in-house lawyers, I feel strongly that the training received by a barrister is of great value to becoming a good in-house lawyer – with the emphasis in the training including advocacy skills and decision-making skills.
“This is a good grounding in the vital in-house prerequisites of being able to communicate well with, and influence the decisions and behaviours of, their colleagues in the business and to have their own direct influence in the strategic decision-making for their company.”
Head of Legal
|Organisation:||Network Rail Sector|
|Head of legal:||Hazel Walker|
|Legal capability:||19 lawyers|
|Main law firms:||Addleshaw Goddard, Bircham Dyson Bell, Lovells, Thomas Eggar|
|Hazel Walker’s CV||