LONDON (Reuters) - Rolls-Royce [RR.L] has appointed Simon Kirby, the head of British high-speed rail project HS2, as chief operating officer, the aerospace and engineering group said on Saturday.
British media said Kirby's unexpected departure from HS2 would add to the uncertainty over a 55 billion pound ($73 billion) project that has been controversial both among the public and within the ruling Conservative Party.
Rolls-Royce said Kirby would take up the newly created post in the coming months and would take responsibility for the "group-wide transformation agenda".
The company is part-way through a turnaround plan after a string of profit downgrades last year, attributed to canceled orders from oil industry customers after an oil price plunge and a slowdown in aftermarket servicing for aircraft engines.
The group said in July the plan was starting to take hold and it stuck to its full-year profit forecast.
"(Kirby's) exceptional track record in delivering complex major programs is highly relevant to Rolls-Royce and will strengthen management capability ahead of a period of significant expansion," Chief Executive Warren East said in a statement.
"We are doubling our production of large civil aircraft engines and substantially growing our nuclear division while at the same time driving a transformation program that will make us a more resilient and cash generative business," he said.
Kirby is chief executive of HS2 Ltd, the company in charge of planning and delivering a new high-speed rail network linking London to cities in the Midlands and the north.
He joined HS2 in May 2014 from Network Rail, the body that controls Britain's railway infrastructure, where he was a board member. He will not join the Rolls-Royce board.
"I am hugely proud to be joining one of the world’s great engineering companies at an exciting time in its development," Kirby was quoted as saying in the statement from Rolls-Royce.
The first phase of HS2, which will run from London to Birmingham, is due to be completed in 2026, although there have been multiple warnings from critics of the project that it would not be completed on time or on budget.
Opponents of HS2 say it is far too costly and will not deliver the economic benefits promised by successive governments, while advocates of the project say it will stimulate growth in the Midlands and northern England.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Robin Pomeroy