Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2000
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,
(Mr Corbett) Yes; but at the moment it is the ultrasonic
testthat 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.
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
(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
(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
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 placewe 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
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
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 itof 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
(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.