Rowlands was educated at St Mary's College, Crosby and Oxford University before starting his career with the international engineering business IMI plc. He left the private sector to join the Department of Trade and Industry in 1974. At the DTI he was appointed private secretary to the Minister of State for Industry.
He moved to the then Ministry of Transport in 1983 where he has held a number of posts with responsibilities for finance, aviation, shipping, ports and railways. Before being appointed Permanent Secretary in May 2003, he was the director general for railways, aviation, logistics, maritime and security.
In this role he was central to the creation of Network Rail after Railtrack was put into administration and the delivery of public-private partnerships for the London Underground and the National Air Traffic Services. Rowlands received a knighthood in the Birthday Honours List 2006. He retired on his 60th birthday in 2007.
Since leaving the civil service his career moves have been subject to a number of controversies, including government blocks on his attempts to join the Boards of British Airports Authority and Bechtel. His present roles in the private sector now include Chairmanships of Gatwick Airport and Angel Trains. He is also the Chairman of High Speed 2 Ltd, the quango tasked with advising Ministers on future high speed rail connections between London, Heathrow Airport and Birmingham Airport or City Centre.
- "Sir David Rowlands - Ex-mandarin is on track for rail revolution". Daily Mail. 2009-10-19. Retrieved 2010-03-18.
- "David Rowlands". New Civil Engineer. 2003-05-29. Retrieved 2010-03-18.