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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 179)



Mr Donaldson

  160. Mr Middleton, can I just bring you back to the response you gave to Mr Bennett about the ultrasonic equipment. You had indicated that your enquiries had deduced at this stage that it was not the fault of the equipment, that the problem had arisen in the follow-through. Are you confident that that ultrasonic equipment, which Railtrack seem to place a lot of store by, in terms of safety, is capable of detecting the kinds of faults that gave rise to the broken rail at Hatfield?
  (Mr Middleton) I am confident that the ultrasonic testing equipment that we have can find the faults in the rail, yes.
  (Mr Corbett) Yes; but at the moment it is the ultrasonic test—that answered the question, but I think the next stage forward is more sophisticated ultrasonic testing equipment mounted on trains, which is happening in some other countries, and I think we can look at that.

Mr Donohoe

  161. Do you, Mr Corbett, really like being involved in crisis management?
  (Mr Corbett) No, is the answer. This is not a situation which one can enjoy.

  162. Some people do; some people are perverse, I suppose. But when do you think you will get out of being in crisis management?
  (Mr Corbett) We have done 1,800 inspections, we have got another 400 to go; we have got another huge weekend coming up ahead of us. The storms on Monday just came totally at the wrong moment, we have got our fingers crossed for the weekend, and we have got 20 sites flooded, I have got the list here.


  163. Your lines to God seem to be crossed, do they not?
  (Mr Corbett) But I hope that with another huge weekend on the railway we can open up the network in a lot better shape than it has been the last week. We think we are through the worst, and then it will go at various rates on different lines, but we should basically be back to normal by Christmas.

  164. By Christmas?
  (Mr Corbett) It is different on different lines. I have got some interesting data here. It seems that the commuter lines on Monday will be running almost normally. Ashford to London is an hour eight minutes normally; our best estimate for Monday is an hour 13. Southampton-London will actually open normally, an hour 16. But it is going to be the intercity routes where it is going to take a bit longer.

  165. Crewe, somehow or other, may get left off the list. Would you like to leave that information with the Clerk when you go?
  (Mr Corbett) I am afraid Crewe will take a little bit longer.

  166. I do not know why that does not come as a total surprise to me. I just want to ask you one or two questions. Have you had a meeting with your largest shareholders in the past week, to discuss the developments that have been taking place?
  (Mr Corbett) Our stockbrokers, Cazenove & Co., contacted the top 20 shareholders the day after the crash. I believe that our Finance Director has set in place—we have set in place some meetings after the results on 13 November. We are in what is called the quiet period at the moment; you might not have thought it.

  167. Is this a member of your own staff, because we were told that a member of Railtrack's staff had been to visit these various large shareholders; is that not correct?
  (Mr Corbett) When you are in the period two months before your results you basically do not talk to shareholders, you are in what is called—

  168. So it is not correct; your broker talked to them, only your broker?
  (Mr Corbett) The broker talked to them, yes.

  169. So did they indicate to your broker that they were content with the methods that you have been employing, and were they broadly supportive?
  (Mr Corbett) Every one of the top 20 shareholders was, yes.

  170. You have not had a problem in persuading them that safety is your number one priority?
  (Mr Corbett) No.

  171. You did get rather an awkward reception some time ago when you told the City you were changing the way that you were going to operate, did you not?
  (Mr Corbett) No.

  172. They did not say that they were not too happy about anything that did not put profits first?
  (Mr Corbett) No; we have not had that put to us.

  173. And they have not told you they are concerned about your share price?
  (Mr Corbett) They were concerned about it when it went down to sort of £5, £6, but they are not concerned about it—of course they are concerned about it, investors always are, but the regulatory review has been able to align their interests with the public service interest, that is one of the great things that—

  174. We are not talking about the regulatory review, we are asking about your shareholders. What was their reception to what has happened to you, to the drop in your share price, which is now creeping back slightly, but what was their attitude, are they supportive of what you are doing?
  (Mr Corbett) They are supportive, yes.

  175. I want to ask you, just finally, one or two questions about your contractors. Are you aware that some contractors are said to be recruiting staff late at night, without proper safety training, many of them knowing nothing about the railways?
  (Mr Corbett) We have been aware of that, and that is why we put in place project Sentinel to address that, which Chris can expand on, if you like.

  176. Are you aware that some of your contractors have been granting COSS certificates to staff with no prior railway experience, after three months' employment?
  (Mr Corbett) I was not aware of that; if I had been we would have stopped it.
  (Mr Leah) No. I think if there is evidence that this is happening then we do need to have that evidence to follow it up immediately, because we do not condone it.

  177. I see. Are you aware that many people working in the contractors are unhappy with signing off the safety levels but feel that the pressures put on them are such that they cannot do anything other than that?
  (Mr Corbett) I am not aware of that, but I think this whole issue of culture at the front line is going to have to come out of this inquiry.

  178. Is there any reason why you should not at the present time suspend your negotiations on the new contracts and either seriously consider bringing them in house, where you should have the full legal responsibility which resides in you through the contractors but which seems to have got sadly dissipated, or do you intend to continue in the way that you have heretofore?
  (Mr Corbett) We are in the middle of discussions about suspending the renegotiation of the contracts as we speak. We have not contacted all the contractors yet, but that is the way that we are going to go. The issue of taking on the management of the maintenance contracts is a huge one, it is a massive management challenge; but I think Madam Chair, as always, has put her finger on the heart of the matter.

  179. How many times do people at Railtrack have to fail before they are asked to resign?
  (Mr Corbett) That is an impossible question to answer. I have changed quite a lot of people at Railtrack, and this is one of the fundamental problems you have; how fast do you go. On the one hand do you go slowly because you want to preserve the railway skills; on the other hand do you want to go fast because you want to try to make it better and respond to the challenges.

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