Yakunin became deputy head of RZD when it was separated from the Ministry of Communications in 2003. He became RZD's president in June 2005 and was subsequently elected chairman of the International Union of Railways (UIC) in 2012, a post he still holds.

Yakunin is a close confidant of Russia's president Mr Vladimir Putin and his departure from RZD reportedly comes as part of a reshuffle among the Kremlin's inner circle. He is planning to stand for election as senator for Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. Media reports suggest that if he is successful in his election bid, Yakunin could become vice speaker of the Federation Council.

Potential successors could include Putin's transport aide Mr Igor Levitin, Mr Oleg Sieneko, CEO of military equipment and rolling stock manufacturer Uralvagonzavod, and RZD vice-president Mr Alexander Misharin.