JOHN ARMITT this week announced he is to step down as chief executive of Network Rail after five years in charge of the organisation.
Deputy chief executive Iain Coucher will take over the top job from Armitt in July.
Armitt, 60, said the decision would allow him to seek new challenges to take him through 'the next 10 years' but during an exclusive interview with NCE refused to be drawn on precisely what these challenges might be.
'I've got nothing lined up at all, ' he insisted. 'It's always been impossible to do anything else while you're doing this job, so at least now it gives me the opportunity to be more positive when people do ask me about future opportunities.' In particular Armitt would not be drawn on industry speculation that he was in line for Olympic Delivery Authority chairman role left vacant since the departure of Jack Lemley in October (NCE 26 October).
Denying that he had been approached by the ODA he joked: 'frying pan to fire comes to mind' but added: 'I would not rule anything in or anything out'.
'I'd like to keep active over the next 10 years and I am totally open-minded about it, ' he said. 'Inevitably people will assume that it is likely to be in engineering - that's what I understand best - but that's not to say that I wouldn't be interested in something else. At the moment I have a totally open mind.
Armitt said that the time was right to hand over to Coucher as the company was in a stable position and was doing well in terms of railway performance, safety and efficiency.
Network Rail's interim results in November showed it had returned a profit of £747M for the first half of the year and had increased train punctuality to 88.1% - up from 77% in 2001 when Armitt was appointed chief executive.
Radical restructuring, including a bold decision to tear up inefficient private sector contracts to bring track maintenance back in-house, have seen Network Rail refocus its activities around engineering excellence.
This clearly won over the confidence of the Rail Regulator, which awarded him £24bn to spend over five years - one of the biggest public financing packages ever awarded to the railways.
In spending this cash, Armitt introduced stringent policies to ensure that renewal contracts were only let once the full scope of work had been identified.
Although delaying millions of pounds of contracts, the policy has ensured that Network Rail is 'well on the way' to achieving its five year goal of a 31% increase in efficiency.
'We expect to fulfil our budget (by the end of the five year regulatory period), ' he said, pointing out that the underspend had now dropped from billions to a few hundred million pounds.
The big challenge facing Coucher, said Armitt, will be to enable the railway to meet the huge growth targets predicted over the next 30 years, not least in the wake of the Eddington Report which called for greater use to be made of existing transport assets.
'Signalling will probably be the major route to increasing capacity, ' he said, pointing to the £59M trial of ERTMS signalling underway in North Wales.
'At the same time we will have to look at larger trains and this could require new layouts and longer platforms - there are signifi cant civil engineering opportunities going forward.'