Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2000

MR GERALD CORBETT, MR RICHARD MIDDLETON AND MR CHRIS LEAH

Chairman

  1. Good afternoon. I wonder, Mr Corbett, if you will be kind enough to identify yourself and your colleagues for the record?

  (Mr Corbett) Yes. I am Gerald Corbett, Chief Executive of Railtrack. On my left is Chris Leah, who was Operations Director, is now Safety Director, 33 years in the railway; and Richard Middleton, who is in charge of our relations with the train operators, who is an engineer, and 25 years in the railway.

  2. Thank you. Do you intend to make a short statement, or may we go straight to questions?
  (Mr Corbett) I would quite like to make a short statement, and I think the best way to start is actually if we are able to pass round a piece of rail, it is not the Hatfield rail, but pass round a piece of rail so the Committee can actually see what `gauge corner cracking' is, because I think that will help facilitate the discussion.

  3. I am sure that will be extremely helpful and will completely change our attitude. Please do pass it round.
  (Mr Corbett) I will explain it. You can see from the surface of the rail, you will see these tiny cracks, which is all you see at the top, and then, on the shiny bit, you can see a crack propagating down into the rail. Nobody understands at the moment the precise reasons for the speed of propagation. Although gauge corner cracking has been around for a while, in the last year it has increased quite significantly. Our initial hypotheses and the results of the initial work suggest it is to do with the wheel/rail interface, and that it is to do with more trains, heavier trains, new trains; it is not confined to the UK, they have a big problem in Germany and they have a problem in France. And one of our first actions has been to retain a Professor from Imperial College to do some work with us, we have also retained Mr Fredericks, the old BR Head of Research, we have our own metallurgists, obviously, and we are working with NEWT International, who have got some international experience on this. But I think it is worth the Committee just understanding precisely what it is we are dealing with.

  4. Do you have anything else to say, Mr Corbett?
  (Mr Corbett) I would just like to say something briefly about the crash and what we have done since the train crash. The crash at Hatfield on 17 October was ghastly; we have taken responsibility for it, once it became clear that the primary cause was a broken rail. The rail was identified as needing rerailing back in January but a speed restriction was not put on, which is not acceptable. Rerailing happened in May, part of the site was rerailed; again the speed restriction should have been put on the rest of it.

  5. Exactly what do you mean by that, Mr Corbett; do you mean that your contractor did not do what they were supposed to do?
  (Mr Corbett) The condition of the track at Hatfield was appalling, it was totally unacceptable and a speed restriction should have gone on. There were various times when a speed should have been put on and they were not, and we need to understand why.

  6. No, I am not quite clear. Are you saying that Balfour Beatty found these cracks and did not follow the correct procedure; is that what you are telling us?
  (Mr Corbett) It is very early in the inquiry; the industry inquiry only started on Monday. But I personally have seen that track, our engineers have obviously seen that track, and the track is unacceptable and it should have had a speed restriction on it; and we have to understand precisely why a speed restriction was not put on it.

  7. And do you have an explanation for that; because you are legally responsible?
  (Mr Corbett) The company, Railtrack, is responsible; whether or not it was Balfour Beatty is beside the point because we are responsible for the state of the track, and that is our responsibility, we accept that.

  8. But you have very specifically highlighted this, Mr Corbett, therefore you must have a reason for so doing. Are you saying that this was discovered very early and that although you knew that there was considerable difficulty and a speed restriction should have been put on it was not, you were not informed and no speed restriction was placed on the line; is that what you are saying? Can we just be quite clear?
  (Mr Corbett) What I am saying is that that track was decided to be rerailed back in January. What we have not got into the detail of yet is precisely the condition of the track in January, but the experts who have looked at the track as it is today think that it is unlikely that in January it should not have had a speed restriction put on it. The track was ultrasonically tested in June, and the ultrasonic tester did not work; we do not understand why a speed restriction was not put on then and we do not understand why—

  9. The ultrasonic tester did not work?
  (Mr Corbett) Correct; and we do not understand—

  10. You were told that at the time?
  (Mr Corbett) Me, personally?

  11. Someone in Railtrack, Mr Corbett, must take responsibility for something.
  (Mr Corbett) Railtrack take responsibility, let us be clear about that. The inquiry will show whether or not the fact that the ultrasonic tester did not work in July, whether that was reported to Railtrack. Because we have taken responsibility, in a sense it is not the core of this issue. We have to understand why, at all these different occasions, a speed restriction was not put on.

Mr Bennett

  12. Can I just be clear, when you say it did not work, do you actually mean that it was done and it appeared to give the results that the track was alright?
  (Mr Corbett) No; no, it did not. It was done, and, as I understand it, the sounds that it put through the rail just did not give a reading. And what should have happened is another testing should have happened immediately thereafter, and, based on the condition of the track in October, it seems highly likely that a speed restriction should have been put on then.

  13. So if it did not give a reading, what does that say to the operator, that it was correct or that it was faulty?
  (Mr Corbett) The ultrasonic testing equipment might not give a reason; well, the reason would be because the ultrasonic tester was not working, yes.

Mr Stevenson

  14. When did your company know it was not working, Mr Corbett, may I ask, through the Chair?
  (Mr Corbett) We do not yet know, Mr Stevenson, whether Railtrack knew that the ultrasonic tester was not working, because the ultrasonic testing is done by Balfour Beatty. The rail was ground in early September, which is a standard approach that we reintroduced a year ago for gauge corner cracking, and then the crash happened on 17 October. The track had been patrolled weekly by the maintenance contractor, and the track should also have been patrolled on a six-weekly basis by the patrolman's boss. So there has been a big failure, and it is unacceptable, and we have accepted responsibility for it; but, as in all these cases, there is a whole multitude of things that should have happened and have not happened, and that is the subject of the detailed inquiry.

Chairman

  15. I think we will ask you a series of questions on all of those points, Mr Corbett, unless I am gravely mistaken. May I start by asking you, do you believe the Government has still got confidence in you, as Railtrack's Chief Executive?
  (Mr Corbett) The relations with the Government have progressively improved in the last year. I have regular contact with Ministers and with Number 10. And I personally have no reason to suppose that they do not, but that is a matter for Ministers, not for me.

  16. Then do you intend to resign once the immediate crisis affecting the rail network has passed?
  (Mr Corbett) As soon as I knew that it was a crash, I went straight to the site. I talked to the Minister of Transport from the site and informed him that if indeed it was our responsibility I would tender my resignation. That evening it became clear, as information came through from the site, that it was a broken rail. I telephoned Sir Alastair Morton and told him I intended to tender my resignation. At quarter to six the next morning I received a `phone call from China, from the Deputy Prime Minister, and I told him the cause of the crash and that I was going to tender my resignation, and I then went into the office and did that. The Board met that evening and I did not take part in the Board meeting, but they asked me to withdraw my resignation, I think, partly because I got a lot of support from elsewhere in the industry and outside, and they took the view that at this time continuity and the leadership that I had been able to bring was important.

  17. When the Deputy Prime Minister `phoned you at that hour of the morning, did he try to dissuade you from handing in your resignation?
  (Mr Corbett) There was a silence at the end of the `phone.

  18. For how long did that continue, and what was the next remark?
  (Mr Corbett) The Deputy Prime Minister is—

  19. Very rarely silent for long.
  (Mr Corbett) There was a silence; but he was more interested in understanding what had happened and whether we were engaged in dialogue with the HSE, and that kind of thing. It was quite a short discussion, he had stepped out of a banquet to make the call and I agreed that I would immediately telephone Mr Callaghan at the HSE, which is what I did, and then I got up and went into the office.


 
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