Railtrack gets a new chief amid recruiting crisis

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A civil engineer was appointed chief executive of Railtrack yesterday amid signs that the company's administrators are struggling to fill senior posts at the bankrupt group.

Ernst & Young, the accountants conducting the administration, announced that John Armitt, 55, would take up the £400,000-a-year post. He is a former chief executive of the Costain construction group.

But the administrators will be forced to continue the hunt for a chairman after John Prideaux, the former head of British Rail's InterCity business, refused the job at the last minute.

Even when Railtrack was a going concern the board had difficulty in attracting senior executives. Sir John Parker, 59, the chairman of the Lattice Group, famously rejected the chairmanship just hours before the official confirmation of his appointment. He was the last of a long series of businessmen who were offered the job only to turn it down.

Instead the company gave the job to John Robinson, who confirmed his resignation yesterday, as did Railtrack's chief executive, Steve Marshall. Unlike his successor, Mr Marshall trained as an accountant.

Another appointment announced yesterday to beef up the engineering expertise at the company was that of Jim Cornell, another civil engineer who had 36 years' experience with British Rail. He becomes a non-executive director.

The new senior managers take over at a time when train operating companies are blaming disillusioned Railtrack employees for a deterioration in services.

Mr Robinson and Mr Marshall are to remain on the board of Railtrack's parent company, Railtrack Group plc, which is not in administration. From there they will be able to continue their campaign for compensation for Railtrack shareholders who include members of staff, some of whom put their life savings into the company.

Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, had been at loggerheads with both men over the events that led to the collapse of Railtrack at the beginning of October. Mr Robinson rejected suggestions by Mr Byers that the company had sought administration.

While the political battle continues, the new chief executive of Railtrack said he would be able to concentrate on running the network.

Mr Armitt, a former chief executive of the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link company Union Railways, said his new Railtrack post was "a responsibility and a privilege".

He added: "My objective is to get Railtrack running as well as I can so that the company is in good shape for the eventual arrival of a new body. I don't know how long Railtrack will have to stay in administration. There's a lot to be done and it certainly will not be a two-month job."

Mr Byers welcomed the new appointments, which he said would "strengthen the Railtrack management team at a time when, more than ever, the company needs to focus on delivery to its passenger and freight customers".

¿ Station staff at Virgin Trains will stage two 24-hour strikes during the festive period in a dispute over employment conditions. The Rail Maritime and Transport union says its 300 members at Virgin will walk out at 6pm on 23 December and again at noon on New Year's Eve in protest at the imposition of "unacceptable" terms and conditions. Virgin Trains said most of its station staff belonged to another union, which was not in dispute. "We will do all we can to maintain a normal service," a spokesman said.