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Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Hard hat time for rail champion
John Armitt (right) in 1999 with former England boss Kevin Keegan at a fund-raising event in Fulham
Someone to lean on? John Armitt (right) with former England soccer boss Kevin Keegan

There is a big question surrounding John Armitt, the man on whose 6' 4" frame rests the future of Britain's rail service.

It concerns not his relations with the Labour Party, which he opposed in the 1970s. Nor indeed Edwina Currie.

Ian McAllister, chairman, Network Rail
Ian McAllister: Praise
It is - how does he fit a hard hat over his ever-so-shiny halo?

When Mr Armitt last December accepted the job of chief executive at Railtrack plc, then operator the UK's rail infrastructure, many doubted his ability to last until even the introduction of the summer timetable.

Plagued with administration, shareholder revolt, passenger resentment, and little hope of resolution, Railtrack seemed the unstoppable Pendolino of poisoned chalices.

Teflon man

Yet he not only survived the job intact, but won appointment as boss at Network Rail, the not-for-profit firm which has taken over track and signal management.

"I am very pleased that John Armitt has agreed to continue as chief executive," Network Rail chairman Ian McAllister said.

"He has already achieved a great deal during what has been a difficult time."

Even May's Potter's Bar crash failed to undermine Mr Armitt's reputation.

'Great turnaround'

Moreover, he has retained the faith not just of the establishment, but passengers and train operators too.

Railtrack was run by people forever looking over their shoulders at profits and dividends

Rail industry insider

"He knows what he's doing, he's a well respected engineer," a spokesman for Virgin Trains said.

The same Virgin Trains, that is, which is seeing track repairs urged by Mr Armitt wreak havoc with its timetable.

Caroline Jones, spokeswoman at the Rail Passengers Council, said: "There has been a great turnaround at Railtrack, and part of that is down to the way John Armitt has handled things.

"It is no coincidence that a period of big improvement has happened when you have someone who is sensible, and understands engineering, at the helm."

New focus

Indeed a common theme in the plaudits of Mr Armitt surrounds his focus beyond cashflow and deficit towards bolts and sleepers.

Profile - John Armitt
Present: chief executive, Network Rail
2001-02: chief executive, Railtrack
1997-01: chief executive, Costain
1993-97: chief executive, Union Railways
1966-93: John Laing Construction


Government adviser on helping exporters
Director, Major Projects Association
Chaired the Anglo-French venture which won the 300m contract to build the Second Severn Crossing

"What we had previously, with Railtrack as a listed firm, was that financial matters took priority," an industry insider said.

"It was run by people forever looking over their shoulders at profits and dividends.

"With Railtrack in administration, and these issues no longer to the fore, it has ironically been easier for Mr Armitt to get on with things."

As passengers have found out, in particular on the track-repair plagued services from London to the north west of England.

Ms Jones said: "But the work has to be done, and people appreciate the fact it is being organised for nights and weekends when it is likely to cause less disruption.

"That their interests are being considered."

Team player

Sources furthermore praised Mr Armitt's willingness to switch brogues for hob-nailed boots, and tread them to the trackside to hear workers' comments.

The day of the Potters Bar crash, for instance, he was on a Scottish tour which had seen him meet Ayrshire signal box workers, and engineers attempting to resolve delays caused by an unstable mine shaft.

After the accident he visited the injured in hospital, attended the funerals of victims, and gave evidence to the official inquiry.

"John is a team player who understands the importance of partnership," another rail insider said.

"He realises the need for all to work together for the common aim - improving services."

Mr Armitt talks of "working together" or "working closely", of staff "determination" and "commitment".

Even that Blair buzzword "stakeholder" graces his statements.

Turnaround man

A far cry, then, Mr Armitt's relationship with New Labour from the 1970s party which he opposed over nationalisation plans.

Costain's pre-tax profits revival
2000: 6.5m
1999: 6.4m
1998: 0.5m
1997: -7.4m
1996: -62.3m

Indeed, no stranger is Mr Armitt to battle.

Adversaries have included former Eurotunnel head Sir Alastair Morton, whom Mr Armitt - as head of the firm in charge of building the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - fought in a legal dispute over delays.

And they have included the losses and contract failures threatening 130-year-old engineering group Costain when he was appointed chief executive in 1997.

Then, Costain was bearing 300m of debts, had announced losses of 62m, and had seen its shares suspended on the London Stock Exchange.

Its future was deemed so worrying that clients including the Highways Agency and Shell refused to consider Costain for new projects.

By 1999, the firm was able to announce a pre-tax profit of 500,000, after a revamp which saw it focus on copper-bottomed contracts and sell bizarre subsidiaries such as a US mining operation.

By April 2001, Costain had a positive balance of 42.7m, and 600m of contracts in its order book.

Challenges ahead

Not that all will be cock-a-hoop over Mr Armitt's leadership of Network Rail.

On taking charge at Railtrack, he is said to have been dismayed at the numbers of consultants the firm was hiring.

According to some estimates, spending hit 350m last year, double the 2000 figure, and calls have mounted for cuts.

"Why spend money hiring all these consultants when you could be reinforcing your in-house teams," an insider said.

Mr Armitt will also face pressure from ministers to ensure a Network Rail concept dreamed up by government works at well in operation as it did on Whitehall drawing boards.

Difficult decisions remain to be taken, much criticism will need to be shunted into the sidings.

St John will indeed need his hard hat if he is to retain his halo intact.

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