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Armitt relishes leadership role

Network Rail chief executive John Armitt has been picked to lead the industry.

Antony Oliver reports.

IT IS CLEAR that Network Rail chief executive John Armitt got largely what he asked for from Alastair Darling's rail review. On this basis it is not surprising to see him extremely positive about the future for the railways.

Yet standing over the carcass of the soon to be scrapped Strategic Rail Authority, he plays down any suggestion of winning battles.

What's best for the industry is his sole focus, he insists, and the proposed structure simply builds on existing plans.

'The question for government was 'do you go with the direction of travel or opt for something more radical?', ' says Armitt, reflecting on the government's proposal to place Network Rail at the centre of the industry.

The review, he insists, proposes only a small step forward from the current situation. Teams already work together across Network Rail and the train operating companies to set and deliver timetables. Progress towards Darling's goal of replacing confrontation with aligned interests is already being made, he explains.

'The day to day relationships have already been improved.

The White Paper just reinforces the actions we are already taking, ' says Armitt. 'The government wanted a single point of contact and to a certain extent needed to see Network Rail and the train operators singing from the same hymn sheet.'

Engineering will remain at the heart of his business.

'Engineering means ensuring the infrastructure is fit for purpose so that you can operate it effectively, ' says Armitt. 'Nothing changes regarding the need to tackle the backlog of work. We will now certainly be able to work more closely with the operators [to manage this work effectively] but we will not do that without good engineering.'

Network Rail will in future have much greater control over its ability to do work on the railways, being able to set timetables and call the shots as far as who runs which trains, where and when.

But Armitt is reluctant to portray himself as the man in charge or the leader that the industry so badly needs - even though he clearly is. He prefers to stress a new era of cooperation between all parties.

This, he emphasises, is no return to the days of Railtrack 'arrogance'.

It will be crucial, he says, to work with the operators and with government at every step of the way - the secretary of state, after all, sets the delivery targets, the strategic outputs and the amount available to spend.

Armitt will also have greater responsibility for enhancements on the network and will act as client on small to medium sized projects in future. But he is confident that he already has the skills and experience needed.

Clearly, having so much responsibility for future rail delivery creates opportunity.

But is it something of a poisoned chalice?

Perhaps, he concedes. 'Our performance will be seen and will be held to account by the public and ministers. Success has to be satisfied customers.

If they are not happy you are unlikely to succeed in any business.'

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