The former Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett is in talks that would see him leave his new job and settle for a life of "obscurity" because of continuing controversy over his role in the Hatfield and Paddington rail crashes.
Mr Corbett, who is now executive chairman of Woolworths, said he was in "discussions" over his future at the company.
His admission that he may be ready to leave came after the Cullen report into the Paddington crash accused Railtrack last week of "lamentable failure and institutional paralysis" and after criticism of his £1.4m pay- off from the company.
Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, yesterday joined the condemnation of the pay-off. "I think it's pretty unacceptable given the service that Railtrack have delivered, or failed to deliver," she told the BBC.
Mr Corbett said the last week had been particularly difficult for him and his family. "Everybody close to the Railtrack situation knows my commitment to safety and the improvements that were made during my time there," he said.
"The tragedy of the two terrible accidents will be with me forever."
A friend said: "He and his family have been taken aback by the scale of the media attention. Whatever he did at Railtrack, he was there three years as chief executive and gave his life to trying to make it better. He's only 49. He doesn't rule out a return to corporate life." Asked what business Mr Corbett might wish to move into upon leaving Kingfisher, the Woolworths parent company, a colleague said: "Obscurity".
Mr Corbett joined Woolworths in March on a six-month contract and was expected to stay on to September after overseeing the demerger of Woolworths into a separate company quoted on the London Stock Exchange. He said yesterday he was due to have "further discussions" with Kingfisher's chief executive, Sir Geoffrey Mulcahy, regarding his future.
Mr Corbett said he remained focused on the demerger. "Now is a critical time for Woolworths and with the demerger imminent there is much to do."
Mr Corbett is, in effect, working for a freelance fee of £250,000 for Kingfisher in the project. He would not receive a pay-off if he left early. He will receive a success fee only if he is still engaged on the demerger at the time of its completion. "Gerald is not thinking, 'I really want the job, I really want the bonus'," said one friend. A company insider added: "It's up to Gerald whether he wants to work for a public company, but Sir Geoff is not going to add to his misery."
Kingfisher refused to comment, but it is expected to issue a statement this week when it announces Woolworths' board and its financial structure.
Mr Corbett tried to resign after the Hatfield crash but was persuaded to stay on by Railtrack's board. His father was killed in a car crash and his attempt to empathise with the families of victims was genuine. The public support he received for staying on evaporated when the rail network experienced its worst disruption since the war.