The head of Network Rail has inherited a company with outdated infrastructure and equipment. John Armitt, a civil engineer, tells Helen Knight how he plans to overcome the enormous obstacles.

John Armitt must have grown tired of being described as the man with the worst job in the UK over the past year.

With almost everyone in the country believing they could do a better job of running the railways than his unpopular predecessor Gerald Corbett, angry passengers complaining of disrupted services and the likelihood of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) and successive transport secretaries scrutinising his every move, taking on the role of Railtrack chief executive would be considered a brave decision in anyone’s book.

Added to this was the uncertainty: when Armitt joined Railtrack in December, the company was in administration, following the then transport secretary Stephen Byers’ decision to take it out of private ownership in October. It was far from certain that Armitt would keep his job once the planned publicly-owned successor company was formed.

But despite Railtrack being vilified in the media throughout its six years in operation, particularly after Hatfield, the rail disaster that led to speed restrictions being introduced across the network and precipitated the company’s demise, Armitt’s appointment was greeted with general, albeit muted, approval.

As a civil engineer with over 30 years’ experience, he fitted in with the widely held view that an engineer was needed to head the UK’s troubled rail network, and seemed to have the expertise needed to restore some much-needed stability. And, when the new, not-for-dividend company Network Rail took over from Railtrack last month, Armitt transferred across too.

Armitt claims he welcomed the chance to head Railtrack, having enjoyed working on the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link while chief executive of Union Railways in the mid-1990s. ‘Coming to Railtrack was an opportunity to come back to what was one of the most satisfying periods of my career,’ he says.

Satisfying is not a word many would associate with running the rail network, but Armitt believes he is beginning to have some success, particularly in his pledge to increase the level of engineering expertise. ‘We are recruiting 200 more engineers this year, our track conversion courses [where engineers from other disciplines are trained in rail-related skills such a signalling] have been successful, and we will also be taking engineers back from our contractors,’ he says.

He hopes to continue this focus on engineering with Network Rail. ‘The encouraging thing is that the new board has two or three non-executive directors who have been involved in running railways elsewhere in the world, so there is a strong engineering presence.’

But ensuring engineering excellence in the UK’s railways is about more than changing the set-up of the board. As Armitt himself admits, the majority of the UK’s stations, structures and tunnels are over 100 years old, 25 per cent of its sleepers are timber, and in some parts of the network the rails are still joined by steel fishplates rather than being welded. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that there are still 325 manually-operated signal boxes, which use Victorian iron interlock lever frames.

So how is it possible to run a modern rail network using such outdated infrastructure and equipment, and what can be done about it? ‘Quite a lot of our overhead line, signalling and communication systems are nearing the end of their lifecycle,’ admits Armitt with characteristic understatement. But he adds that more money has been forthcoming from the SRA in the past couple of years, and if that is allowed to continue he believes there could be a genuine opportunity for improvement.

‘Our objective is a network that is on average about halfway though its lifecycle, so we are not having to spend too heavily to catch up with the old elements that are coming to the end of their lives. But realistically we are probably looking at five years or so before we get there.’

Modernising the network is also about introducing more automatic equipment and remote control and inspection to undertake jobs traditionally carried out more slowly by maintenance crews. This includes trains capable of laying about 800m of new track in a single shift, a significant improvement on current practice. Trains will carry GPS devices to relay the exact location of objects, such as fallen trees, blocking the track, allowing them to be cleared more quickly.

Digital cameras will soon be mounted on examination trains to provide a visual record of the condition of the track and its surrounding area, says Armitt. ‘The quality of these photographs is very high, and we plan to mount cameras on passenger trains with automatic remote download to our systems.’

A trial is being run on the Chiltern line, where cameras are fitted to two or three trains. These take pictures during the trains’ journeys, and the images are downloaded to a computer at the end of the day, when the software scans them to pick up anomalies.

Armitt also plans to improve communications between drivers and signal control. The existing system combines lineside telephones with in-cab radio systems. The radios are up to 18 years old, and not all systems work in tunnels and areas with bad reception. In a scheme called GSM-R, an in-cab system capable of operating anywhere on the network, is being introduced, and is due to be completed in 2006. A new fixed telecoms network will be installed by 2008 to replace the existing system, which has reached the end of its life. Research is also being undertaken into using lasers to tackle that perennial problem, leaves on the line, he says.

Increasing the use of new communications and remote monitoring technology will improve the overall running and maintenance of the railways. But if the UK is to have the ‘safe, reliable and predictable’ network that Armitt acknowledges the public wants, fundamental modernisation work is needed. Engineering work on the railways is split into three: maintenance, renewal and enhancement. Network Rail has said it will take back greater control of maintenance from its contractors. Armitt has recently dismissed the possibility of bringing all such work back in-house.

Since Hatfield revealed the extent of track problems across the network, has the emphasis slipped too far towards emergency maintenance and repair, and away from genuine enhancement?

‘In a way you cannot have too much maintenance work, and some of the problems we have are down to the fact that we haven’t done as much as we should have over the years,’ says Armitt.

That is certainly true, but enhancement projects are still crucial if Network Rail is to avoid spending its time playing catch-up to repair crumbling infrastructure, without making any real impact on the network itself. Enhancement projects already in the pipeline range from major projects such as the £800m Thameslink 2000 scheme, which involves improving capacity on the line between Bedford and Brighton from 12 to 24 trains an hour through improved signalling systems, to extending platforms to cope with longer trains.

‘There is a constant review between the SRA and ourselves as to which are the best enhancements to put on the network, and very often it seems that small, perhaps £5m-£10m improvements to junctions, layouts, small signalling systems and stations can bring quite good improvements to day-to-day operations,’ he says.

The larger schemes, such as those aiming to knock half an hour off the journey time from London to Edinburgh, are very expensive and take a long time, he says. ‘There is a limit to how much cash can be raised for these, and we have to get the balance right.’

So why do costs on major projects such as the West Coast Main Line upgrade seem to spiral so far out of control – it is now expected to cost nearly £10bn, compared with the original estimate of £2.5bn – and why do the schemes themselves take so long to complete? ‘Rebuilding this line is rather like digging up the M6 while the traffic is flowing, without a hard shoulder to move things over to. So it’s happening in a very piecemeal manner. If we can get longer possessions from the train operator, whether it is weekends, weeks, or in the case of next year three or four months at a time, we can complete work more quickly, and at lower unit costs.’

The West Coast Main Line has, of course, also been beset by problems accommodating the 140mph speeds originally planned for Virgin’s new Pendolino tilting trains. The SRA said recently the trains would be limited to 125mph for at least 10 years, until the ERTMS automatic protection system is ready for installation, possibly in 2013.

Some question whether high-speed rail services of the type run in Europe will ever be seen in the UK, because twisting routes and infrastructure such as level crossings make it difficult to run very fast trains safely over existing main routes. Armitt admits this can make life difficult, and expensive, when upgrading routes to accommodate higher speeds.

So speed objectives on the longer-distance routes are likely to remain at around 125-140mph for the foreseeable future (with the notable exception of the Channel Tunnel rail link, on which trains will be able to travel at up to 186mph). ‘Broadly speaking, over the next five to 10 years the focus will be on the 125-140mph range, typical of what is going on with the West Coast Main Line with tilting trains, rather than aiming for the European long-distance speeds of 185-200mph.’

But as Armitt knows only too well, in the UK he is unlikely to be judged on how fast trains are able to travel, but on whether he can ensure they run on time.

Sidebar: For the record

John Armitt was appointed chief executive of the now insolvent Railtrack on 14 December last year. He studied at Portsmouth College of Technology, then joined John Laing in 1966, where he remained until 1993 (reaching chairman of the international and civil engineering divisions).

While there he worked on building a new airport for the Falkland Islands, and was involved in the Second Severn Crossing. The project was one of the first Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes, and the team not only raised the money, but also designed and built the bridge. He says: ‘The Second Severn Crossing was for me and everybody else involved on it the highlight of our careers: all civil engineers love to build bridges.’

Armitt joined Union Railways as chief executive in 1993, where he was responsible for the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link. He became chief executive of Costain in 1997, and was hailed as the construction group’s saviour. The company made cumulative losses of £600m in the early 1990s, was £62.3m in the red in 1996, but by 1998 this had been turned into £500,000 profit.

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