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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)

WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2000

MR GERALD CORBETT, MR RICHARD MIDDLETON AND MR CHRIS LEAH

  60. You mentioned Ladbroke Grove in this context; do you think the Cullen Inquiry should be examining that conflict between safety and performance?
  (Mr Corbett) It is at the heart of the Cullen Inquiry.

  61. That specific conflict?
  (Mr Corbett) Yes.

  62. Alright; well, in that case, what about the Regulator's review of access charges, do you not think a risk assessment should be part of that?
  (Mr Corbett) We have asked Sir David Davies, who is Chairman of Rail Safety, the new subsidiary that we have set up to take on S&SD, to evaluate, to risk assess the regulatory review. Because the railway is a system, and of course we want cost reduction, everyone wants it to be more efficient, everyone wants better train performance, everyone wants better safety, everyone wants more trains, but it is a system that needs balancing, and we do have to understand whether the regulatory review actually does balance it.

  63. But if you are risk-assessing the regulatory review then surely that goes directly against what the Regulator is saying, which is that good management equals safety; and he is saying that we do not need a risk assessment because it is perfectly safe, is what he is saying. Surely there is an inherent conflict there; you are asking for risk assessment of the access view, and he is saying that is not necessary because good management equals safety?
  (Mr Corbett) The Regulator has come up with his conclusions, and we have two months in which to accept those conclusions. But we do have to understand the safety implications of the review and whether we can deliver safety and whether we can actually balance the system with what he has given us; and I think it is entirely right that we should do that, and we will do it.

Mr Olner

  64. Before I ask one or two of the questions I have, Chairman, perhaps Mr Corbett could explain, in the booklet that he has handed out in evidence to us today, on page 11, where it talks about track quality, perhaps he could tell us what super-reds are?
  (Mr Corbett) Richard.
  (Mr Middleton) Super-red, it is a term that we use for a particular type of track fault, which is measured by our track-recording train, and we call it a super-red because as the train goes around, if it finds this fault, it generates what we call a twist-fault, it is where the rails have got out of alignment with the trains passing over them; as a train goes past it spits out a gob of red paint on the track to mark it for the track inspector, so when he comes round he knows which bit of track he has got to fix. And we track super-reds, as we call them, and this chart just shows how we have improved them over the last few years.

  65. Fine. Mr Corbett, in July you said that you had got on top of the problem of broken rails. If you had got on top of them in July, why have we had all the closures on the West Coast Main Line?
  (Mr Corbett) Okay. Following the increase in broken—

  66. Have you improved your safety parameter or not?
  (Mr Corbett) Yes. If I can just answer the question. When the number of broken rails went up in 1998 we responded in 1999 with the big recovery programme for broken rails, and it is that which has driven down the number by 32 per cent. But we have had a crash at Hatfield, and the primary cause is a broken rail; and the big issue is the rate at which those little cracks propagate into the rail, and no-one truly understands what causes that rate of propagation. So I think it is entirely appropriate that we should go out and investigate all sites in the UK.

  67. But, Mr Corbett, you said earlier, I think, to the very first questions that the Chairman asked you, you did not know about the one at Hatfield, there were no speed restrictions, no nothing, put on it?
  (Mr Corbett) No; that is right. However, you look at it, there was a massive local failure at Hatfield.

Chairman

  68. A local failure?
  (Mr Corbett) A failure. The fact, Madam Chair, that we have not found any other rails in the Hatfield condition outside of that contract area does suggest that it was a local failure. But that is why we are doing all the investigations across the network. The way we used to manage this rate of propagation in the rail was through the ultrasonic standards, which outlined, when the ultrasonic test discovers a defect the standard then says this is what you do on the defect. What we did after the crash at Hatfield though was to say, if there is any rail out there on the network in these sites where there is evidence of this tiny cracking, if the cracks are longer than 30 millimetres then you must put a speed restriction on and follow it up by ultrasonic testing and rerail it. What we have effectively done, if I finally answer your question, is tightened the standards because of what happened at Hatfield.

Mr Olner

  69. But you closed the line down from Rugby to Milton Keynes, all the West Coast Main Line around Northampton; was the track that bad?
  (Mr Corbett) No. I have been out on site and seen that track and the track is not that bad, and, as you can see from the chart in the book, and I know the details of the Rugby area, the track quality has actually steadily been improving, but it is a site where it does have these little cracks. And, as a result of what happened at Hatfield, we did think it was appropriate to go out and do all these tests, and where necessary put a speed restriction on and replace the rail.

  70. I understand there is a tremendous amount of confusion, Mr Corbett, we all know the vagaries of the West Coast Main Line and we all say our prayers every week that it is gradually going to get better. But, all of a sudden, bang, half the network was closed down. Now had it suddenly become unsafe, or had you said to your contractors "We don't believe what you've been telling us, we're going to close it down and double-check"; because the general public who use that line want to know?
  (Mr Corbett) I understand that, and people may assume from the action that we have taken that the railway before was not safe; the railway was safe. Gauge corner cracking, as it is called, was being managed in a different way, after the ultrasonic tests and the defects that were found. Because of Hatfield and because no-one really understands the speed of propagation in the rail, we felt it was appropriate, and to restore public confidence, to go out and investigate every site in the country where there is any evidence of gauge corner cracking, and to be cautious, and where the cracks are more than 30 mm to put a speed restriction on and to rerail. And that is what we are doing. It is a big inconvenience to passengers, for which we apologise, but I think, in the light of Hatfield, in which four people died and 30 people were injured, that is the appropriate response.

  71. What people would also want to know is are you replacing the bad stuff with other bad stuff; are you happy that the quality of the rails that you are putting down are good enough for the future? I think I asked you this question when you came to us before, whether the quality of rail that you put down is not the same quality of rail they put down in the rest of Europe?
  (Mr Corbett) It is a very good question. The initial evidence seems to be that the new hard rail does crack more than the older type of rail. The rail, however, we are rerailing with at the moment, all these sites where we have decided to rerail, is the old-fashioned rail; but it is a very good issue. We rerailed Wimbledon a year ago and there are already these tiny little cracks on it, yet we are finding rail that is 25 years old that has never had these tiny cracks and which have suddenly got them.

  72. Yes; absolutely. I used to be an engineer when I had a proper job, as well; the cheaper the material you buy the less longer it lasts. Have you done all these things for cheapness?
  (Mr Middleton) No, that is not the case. In fact, the rail that Mr Corbett was referring to, with this hardened surface, is actually more expensive, it is mill heat-treated rail, and it is harder; but it appears that cracks propagate more quickly from this type of feature. So it is not a question of cost.

Chairman

  73. And you did not know that before you actually shifted from one steel to another; did you do those tests?
  (Mr Middleton) We take advice from the steel manufacturers. This is a very complex issue and it does appear that if you change one element of the wheel/rail interface it can lead to problems. Can I just continue with this answer, because I think this is the heart of this gauge corner cracking issue. Because this cracking has appeared in rail all over the network, both new rail and old rail where it has not appeared before, we have to find the agent that is causing the change. Something has happened which is causing this problem to be more prevalent now on the rail network than it was. I used to be a track engineer, that is my training and my background. I never came across this problem in all my years as a permanent way engineer. I stopped being a permanent way engineer in the early nineties but I never came across this problem. My textbook, which I used when I was an engineer, makes no mention of gauge corner cracking. The worldwide research seems to indicate that it is a problem with modern trains, and what we have got to investigate is whether the interface between the wheel and the rail has changed in modern train design, where the bogies are much stiffer for higher speeds, so the bogies do not hunt as much, or whether a different wear pattern has been allowed to come on the wheels which causes this problem to appear. In the short term, our solution is to change the rails; in the long term, we have to find out what is the change agent that is causing this problem to occur so we can deal with the problem at source. And it is not just a UK problem; they have the problem, as Mr Corbett has said, in other European countries and in America. And it is that worldwide research that we are putting together to try to get a solution to the problem.

  74. I ask you again, when you changed to this type of rail that you are using, what research was undertaken by Railtrack before such rail was put down, in order to ensure that with existing rolling-stock it was capable of doing the job without undue stress?
  (Mr Middleton) I cannot answer that question, because I do not think it was Railtrack that did the research, that brought this rail on. This rail started to come into use in the early nineties and has been increasingly used around the network.

  75. But you have changed maintenance, made many changes right the way across the system, the maintenance systems have changed radically since you took over, so you have brought in all sorts of new forms of working. And I ask you again, did you at no point investigate any problems that arose; you had been told there were more broken rails?
  (Mr Middleton) The number of broken rails, as Mr Corbett has explained, has increased in 1998-99 and 1999-2000.
  (Mr Corbett) It did not go up in 1999-2000. But what precisely causes a broken rail, there are many different causes of broken rails, gauge corner cracking is only one type of it. I think we ought to give you a written response on what tests were done by BR on the MHT rail.

  76. I think we know about the safety of British Rail, Mr Corbett; it is actually Railtrack I was enquiring about?
  (Mr Corbett) The checks that you are talking about, about the suitability of the MHT rail—

  77. No. I asked you, very specifically, since you have undertaken a great many changes, a great many changes, I am not going to go through them all, the fact that originally people would have done visual checks on foot, now a lot of the checks are done from a vehicle, a lot of them are done at night, a lot of them are done under searchlights, I can take you through the changes that you have brought in, if you wish, under contractors, I am asking you something different. I am saying that since you have changed the way that you maintain the rail system, quite radically, since you took over, what research did you do into the safety of these changes before you actually undertook them?
  (Mr Corbett) I do not believe that we have changed the way that we manage the maintenance.

  78. You do not believe that visual checks are now done from a moving vehicle, at night, and under floodlights?
  (Mr Corbett) No; the system is the same as it always has been, with the track patrolman patrolling weekly, with the ultrasonic testing going every three months or every six months, a high-speed track-recording coach going over three-monthly or six-monthly, depending on the route. The change that we are making is the new form of contract, and that has been risk-assessed and it is being put in place now. But, basically, what is going on out there on the track now is what has always gone on.

  79. Do you have anybody inside Railtrack who could check the work of the contractors, because, after all, you hand it all down to somebody else now, do you not? So, in fact, do you have anyone working for you within Railtrack who could actually, on a day-to-day basis, assess the accuracy of your contractors?
  (Mr Corbett) Oh, yes. Each of our zones has what is called an Infrastructure Contracts Management Department, and the areas then report in to the Infrastructure Contracts Management Department,—


 
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