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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2000

MR GERALD CORBETT, MR RICHARD MIDDLETON AND MR CHRIS LEAH

  120. I think it was right as well, but what I am not clear about is, in the answers that you have given me, when you keep talking about a local failure, whether that local failure has implications for the whole of the rail network, and I think that is what we are anxious to try to ascertain; and you are sending me out confusing signals?
  (Mr Corbett) The process that we have in for managing the maintenance contractors has been in place now for four years, and although aspects of it are unsatisfactory, and we are addressing that with the new contract, that process has actually delivered improvements in broken rails, in train performance, in track quality, and a variety of other things. So, in that sense, when you actually look at the data, it does not look like the system is bust and it is the system that has actually delivered improvements. Our initial search round the country suggests that there are not any other rails in the Hatfield condition, but we are quite right to check, and it does suggest that therefore the failures were local. But I think we do have to ask ourselves whether the processes we have got in place are robust enough to capture these local failures, because, obviously, in this circumstance, they were not. But what happens with these failures is, it is sort of multi-factorial, it requires that everything has to go wrong at once and that is when you get a disaster; that is what happened at Ladbroke Grove.

  121. But did it all go wrong at once, given that you were notified, you say, in January this year, that there was a deterioration in this stretch of track; so did it all go wrong at once?
  (Mr Corbett) That is a matter for the inquiry. And I know, from Ladbroke Grove, that what appeared on the day to have happened, three months later it all looked different, and people were talking about a misaligned manganese frog that had jolted the AWS. And then, right at the end of phase one of the inquiry, people suddenly realised that the driver reminder appliance had not been put on by the driver at the previous single yellow, and that actually the mistake was not made at 109, it was made at the previous signal; and that was nine months after the crash. Train crashes are very, very complicated things, and, rather than two weeks after the crash shooting from the hip and giving premature answers, and I think I have probably gone too far already, I think it is better that we let that process go on and learn the lessons as the facts emerge.

  Mrs Gorman: Mr Corbett, I would like to say that I think that your gesture in offering your resignation was an honourable one, and there are very few people in the political world who are prepared to fall on their sword when some mistake under their responsibility has occurred. And, secondly, I would like to ask you whether you feel, in the administrative side of your industry, there just is a plethora of people intervening at the administrative level on issues of day-to-day management, that there are just too many chiefs and not enough Indians? And, if you do think that, do you approve of the appointment of yet another body, in the Strategic Rail Authority, to start intervening within the administration of your industry?

  Mr Olner: A yes or a no will do.

  Chairman: Surprise us, Mr Corbett.

Mrs Gorman

  122. I think you can say "pass", if you want to?
  (Mr Corbett) No, I will say what I think. I think the Strategic Rail Authority is our best chance. I think that Alastair Morton is a remarkable man, he is a big man, he has managed complex businesses himself, he has got the wisdom and experience to help the industry sort itself out underneath him. Two days after the crash the industry all met at Railtrack House, and it was one of those meetings where because of the trauma of what had happened, and there were not any regulators present, everyone was open with each other; and one person said, "You know, the real problem we've got is we're putting a quart into a pint pot," and another person said, "What we should really do is tear up these contracts and just run the railway properly." Now you cannot do that, but it is all symptomatic of the problem, because the industry is overloaded, the growth has surprised everybody, we have got huge investment coming in, which has never happened before, we have got a multitude of objectives, and the pot is beginning to boil over. And after that meeting we then came out of Railtrack House and basically sort of presented that. But we do need Alastair Morton as the umbrella under which we can work that through. And that is what is happening at the moment, as we speak, these five work streams on the various tensions that we have identified are being set up, and we can sort it out under Alastair's leadership and move the whole thing forward.

  123. Can I ask one question of Mr Middleton. You have described the way in which rails appear to be cracking more, recently, and I know nothing, nothing at all, about railway lines, so then I will ask my question, which has been put to me by an old railwayman who asked me to ask it. He tells me that, once upon a time, railways were laid on wooden sleepers, which absorbed a great deal of the pressure, and that nowadays the modern rail lines are laid on concrete, or something much less flexible; and that, in his view, could be a contributing factor. And it may be a simplistic question but I would like to know what you think?
  (Mr Middleton) I think modern railway track needs to be very heavy and very resilient under very high-speed and very heavy loads, and heavy track with concrete sleepers is the modern standard. When I was first a permanent way engineer, there used to be a school of thought that thought that new-fangled concrete sleepers were not the right thing, and there was great attachment to the old wooden sleepers that the railways used to use. My own personal view is that the modern design of concrete sleeper is the most appropriate design for a high-speed railway.

Mr O'Brien

  124. I just want to raise a question on the issue of training, because you did say earlier that 20,000 people employed on maintenance, large companies; and in a report, the conclusions of one of our reports, in 1998-99, we do recommend that Railtrack also should tighten its procedures for selecting and training its contractors. Did you act upon that, Mr Corbett?
  (Mr Corbett) The procedures that are in place for the letting of the new maintenance contracts are tighter than they were, yes.

  125. When did that procedure change?
  (Mr Corbett) That would have changed in 1999, last year.

  126. Following this recommendation that the Committee made?
  (Mr Corbett) Yes.

Chairman

  127. I think it would be interesting to know the schedule, because, of course, a lot of people have still not signed the new maintenance contracts, have they?
  (Mr Corbett) No; that is correct.

  128. Some of them are being negotiated still, and there is quite a small number that will have changed since 1999?
  (Mr Corbett) That is correct.

Mr O'Brien

  129. One of the impressions that I gather, Mr Corbett, is that a lot of the problems with Railtrack is the lack of proper training. Now how do you measure the companies, 20,000 people, that they are getting proper training; has Railtrack an input into that?
  (Mr Corbett) There are 20,000 people in the maintenance companies. Railtrack employs 11,000 people. In Railtrack we have our own training systems, we have training schools for the signals, and we have a series of courses for everybody else. For the maintenance contractors; what do they do for training?
  (Mr Leah) Generally, of course, they are responsible for their own training, let us be clear on that one, to the standards, of course, that are laid down by the institutions, and to meet the standards laid down by Railtrack. A lot of discussion does take place with the personnel directors of each of those companies with ourselves, and we use the Industry Liaison Group to do that. It is an issue which, as an organisation, and organisations, we need to address more, and we are on the case with it, because there is a turnover of staff in the contractors' organisations; it is how those staff get properly trained which has to be addressed, and it is on the radar screen. I believe a lot more still has to be done, to be honest.

  130. Was that the situation then before Hatfield?
  (Mr Leah) The Hatfield contract was the old RT1A contract, so therefore it was not, Madam Chairman, one of the new contracts and did not have the opportunity to take on board some of the clauses there which help the training side. Balfour Beatty though have been very responsive with us as regards the training of their people, and they are audited for their competencies, both from the zonal organisation and from railway safety. But, as I said previously, I believe a lot more still has to be done; and it is one of the issues of this matrix organisation, that we are responsible for our own training, they are responsible for their own training, but they must meet a standard.

  131. Yes, but you are responsible for the business.
  (Mr Leah) Exactly so, yes.

  132. And if they have poor workmanship then they are not responsible for the accidents, it is Railtrack. And so it is in your interest to make sure that their training, their personnel, is up to the level that is needed to ensure safety?
  (Mr Corbett) It is a good point. I think the competency of the front line is a big issue.

  133. This is the case, I feel, and the thread of this is that I consider there has been a lot of neglect on training. Can I put it to you, is there any conflict between providing a safe railway and one which is punctual and reliable; where does the training come in? Is it because they want to have trains fast and they are punctual and they arrive alright, on time, or is it because of the fact that, well, safety is important: where do we stand on this?
  (Mr Corbett) The fundamental priority is running a safe railway.

  134. You have said that before; when you come before us, Mr Corbett, every time you tell us that.
  (Mr Corbett) Yes, that is right.

  135. But over three years we have had three serious accidents?
  (Mr Corbett) Yes, we have had three serious accidents, and that is a huge regret. But the safety record of the privatised railway actually is better than that of BR; and so, although there have been three awful accidents, it has not actually, when you look at the statistics, got worse. But the management challenge, as I said earlier, is about balancing all these different objectives, and we have to be able to balance it and do it safely.

Chairman

  136. Have four of your track workers been killed in the last 12 months?
  (Mr Corbett) We had a period of 15 months, I believe, when there was not a track worker fatality, but I think we have had—

  137. In the last 12 months, have four track workers been killed?
  (Mr Corbett) It is either three or four.
  (Mr Leah) It is four, I think. We had one at Vauxhall, about five weeks ago; we had one at Bradford around three weeks ago.

  138. Four people have been killed?
  (Mr Leah) Yes.

Mr O'Brien

  139. The theory is made, Mr Corbett, about the balancing of the various parts of the business; for how long have you held that theory?
  (Mr Corbett) For quite a while, because that is the nature of the job.


 
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