Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620
WEDNESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2000
620. I am not suggesting that, Mr Middleton,
I am saying that, in order to rebuild confidence in the system,
you are going to have to work not only very efficiently but very
(Mr Middleton) Yes.
621. Could this whole exercise be jeopardised
by attempts by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister
to speed up the repair systems and compromise safety and anything
(Mr Marshall) No, is the answer, not at all. The concerns
being expressed by Government are the same concerns being expressed
by the public and everyone else, which is to get this thing back
to normal as soon as we possibly can; and, in so doing, there
is no question of us compromising safety, or anything else. The
intention is to get the network back to normal as quickly as we
622. First of all, on that question of the extra
engineers, are there really enough skilled people being trained
and available now within the industry?
(Mr Middleton) No, I do not think there are. There
is no quick fix to this, this will take longer; that is why we
have had to go to our consulting engineers to get additional resource
in the short term. One of the key things that I and my Chief Engineer
will be working on will be the whole development of the engineering
strength within the company, and that extends right from graduate
recruitment through to development programmes, so that we have
the right level of engineers, with the right competencies, at
every level of the organisation. Clearly, this is not just for
Railtrack, this is an industry issue, it is an industry issue
not just in the track maintenance and contracting side, but also
on the rolling-stock side. I think one of the things that happened
at the time of privatisation was that the engineering culture,
of which I was part, in BR, actually was broken, and that boy-to-man
training that people got in engineering actually is not there
any more. And my responsibility is to put it back and to put it
623. Moving on, Channel Tunnel Rail Link, is
there a problem with financing that?
(Mr Marshall) It is too early for us to take a decision
on Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and perhaps I could explain what
I mean by that. Our number one priority, if we are sticking to
pure financing, is to complete the regulatory review process,
and that will not be until early into the New Year. The Board
will then, during the first quarter of next year, informed also
by the SRA's strategic plan, because that will be relevant to
the amount of funding we need for the railway, the Board in the
first quarter of next year will then be in a position to step
back, look at all of the due diligence, on Channel Tunnel Rail
Link, Section 2, look at its funding availability and look at
the return on the project, and then will be in a position to decide
whether to exercise its current option. The Board has not made
any judgement one way or the other on that matter at this stage.
624. Is it starting to cost more than was originally
(Mr Marshall) I should not comment in detail on the
due diligence, I hope you will appreciate why, but some of the
written rumours that I have seen, and I imagine members of the
Committee have as well, are wide of the mark and not the case.
625. You said you hope to have the network back
by mid January; does that take into account the possibility of
bad weather over Christmas and the first couple of weeks in January?
(Mr Middleton) The plan that we are talking about
at the moment is to recover from the flood damage we suffered,
and to rectify the problems we have got with cracked rails. We
do carry out our normal precautions to prepare for winter weather.
I have to say, while the zones have got those plans in place,
the major thrust is going on the current repair programme, we
will be revisiting the plans for winter. I saw, on the weather
forecast last night, predictions of severe snows and ice and gales,
and, frankly, my heart sank, because it is the last thing we need;
but we will be as prepared as we can be for that weather when
626. It was put to us that rail is wearing faster
and that there are more problems with broken rail; presumably,
you have not sorted out the engineering problems with that yet?
(Mr Middleton) We have got just about every expert
I could get my hands on to give us advice on the matter. I think,
as I explained to the Committee last time, gauge corner cracking
is quite a recent phenomenon and we do not fully understand it,
and the issue is quite difficult to explain. Essentially, you
get very small cracks on the head of the rail, which grow, propagate,
just below the head of the rail, at an angle of about five degrees
to the rail head. Now that in itself is not a problem, and it
was always believed that these cracks did not penetrate down into
the rail but merely turned upwards after a while and a piece of
the head of the rail would spall away; again, this in itself is
not a problem. What we have discovered is that these cracks can
turn down into the rail, and, as they propagate through the head,
again it is not a problem until they are almost through the head
of the rail, when suddenly the rail can break. So our research
efforts are trying to predict what is the precursor that causes
that to happen. Now, strangely, one of the theories is that modern
steel rails, because they are made to a more consistent quality,
are actually harder than older rails, and whereas these small
cracks, when they formed, used to be worn away by the wheels running
over them, because the steel is now harder and does not wear as
quickly, these cracks can begin to grow. So we are revisiting
the whole metallurgy of rails, the contact surface with the wheels,
and we have got Professor Rod Smith, of Imperial College, who
is the acknowledged expert in this country on rolling contact
fatigue, and he is advising me personally on the solution to this
627. But it does mean that for the next 12 months
you will not have necessarily a solution in place on the rails,
so there is a possibility that you will have to replace more rails
than you have been doing in the past?
(Mr Middleton) Yes, that is true.
628. Briefly; rubbish on the rail, and I have
pressed this on a couple of occasions, at least, in this Committee.
Now the incident at Poynton, yesterday, was it, was that contributed
to by rubbish on the rails?
(Mr Middleton) No. It was brought in from outside
the railway boundary.
629. Just a minute. A wheel off a JCB was brought
in from outside?
(Mr Middleton) That is what we believe today, yes.
630. It was not parked alongside the rail?
(Mr Middleton) I do not believe so.
631. Compensation; is that aimed at winning
back passengers and freight, or is it simply compensation?
(Mr Marshall) Yes. Clearly, we are very sensitive
632. "Yes" to which half, Mr Marshall?
(Mr Marshall) I was going to elaborate, Madam Chair,
so that there is no doubt. Clearly we are sensitive, very sensitive,
to the difficulties that the public are going through; and, yes,
we are certainly minded to think that our part in the compensation,
which has been announced by ATOC today, will help and will make
passengers minded to be patient in difficult times, and therefore
to keep them on the railway.
633. How crucial is it that you win back freight
and passengers to the money that is going to come through to you?
(Mr Marshall) We have a direct incentive now, looking
forward into the next five-year periodic review, because about
20 per cent of our revenues, in fact, will be volume-related,
so if we do not get the traffic growing on the network Railtrack
will suffer alongside the train operating and freight companies,
and that is right.
634. Do you think that this debate on whether
or not you should take in-house the maintenance of the railway
line is a rational response to the accident rate, or is it a response
to the hysteria, almost, that has been generated around these
latest two fatal accidents?
(Mr Middleton) I think it is a rational response,
in the light of what has been found at Hatfield, to review the
arrangements for maintenance, and particularly the engineering
management from track level through to senior engineering management
positions. I have a concern that the flow of information, the
flow of necessary technical information, from the people that
look at the engineering on the ground, through to the senior engineers
who make policy decisions, is not actually in place in all places,
and, therefore, it is only right to carry out a thorough review
of that, to assess the situation and very quickly come to a conclusion
as to the best way to carry out that inspection regime.
635. Do you think it is sensible to move too
far along that route until somebody understands the root cause
of this problem that you have had, the cracking problem? Because
I remember you telling us, the last time you were here, and I
know you are very frequent visitors to these Committees, that
this problem of hair cracking, or corner cracking, is manifest
in other countries as well, and nobody quite understands it. And
do you think that by bringing it in-house you are going to make
a great impact on that, or, if you discovered all the cracks in
the railways extant, would that stop the prevalence of this cracking-up
again, until you understand the technology behind it?
(Mr Middleton) I think, if I may say so, that is a
very good question. The issue on the extent of the cracking on
the network, it is my view that if we had had a clear communication
line from the front-line inspection to senior engineers we would
have identified the extent of the cracking sooner, rather than
following the Hatfield accident, which has led to the imposition
of so many speed restrictions. So I think it is the right thing
to review that arrangement now and come to a conclusion very quickly
to put in place that engineering management chain.
636. So it is a failure of management that you
did not get access to that information early enough?
(Mr Middleton) I think we indicated, Madam Chair,
at the last hearing, there was a management failure in relation
to the accident at Hatfield.
Mrs Gorman: Can I make just one more point,
and, I do not know, you come to talk to us frequently, and you
could reasonably be thought to give the impression that the railways
were very dangerous things altogether. Is it not true that the
safety record of railways has been improving, not just since privatisation
but even before that? I have got in front of me the figures of
the number of fatalities on the railways, and they are phenomenally
low in relation to the amount of traffic that you conduct. And
so do you think that making these very melodramatic responses,
Board changes, in-house changing of the whole staff arrangement,
are sensible, or are you making them under pressure from Committees
like this, and also, of course, the media hype; because, if that
is the case, the decisions may not turn out to have the desired
637. Mr Marshall, are you being pressured?
(Mr Marshall) Absolutely not; we really are not.
638. You would have done all this if you had
not been pushed?
(Mr Marshall) It is Railtrack's view that the failure
of management process is something that we have got to take very
seriously; we are making no prejudgments, we are not saying we
are going to take maintenance in-house, we are saying that it
must be right for us to look at it. And, in fact, we are looking
at it in conjunction with the industry, because one of the five
working groups under Sir Alastair Morton is getting all players
in the industry, operators and ourselves, to look at it as one.
That has to be the right thing to do.
639. Can I make just one last comment on that.
Would you think then that it would make sense, before sacking
all your outside contractors, to be sure what it is that your
in-house contractors are going to be looking for, and is what
they are looking for going to be easy for them to find until we
know the technological cause of this problem?
(Mr Marshall) We would not make any changes whatsoever
until we were sure it was the right answer, and, as I indicated
earlier, my personal view, at this stage, without prejudging the
investigation, is that it is highly unlikely we would take all
of our external contractors in-house; but we need to keep an open
mind and do the work.