Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 2000
1. Good afternoon. I wonder, Mr Corbett, if
you will be kind enough to identify yourself and your colleagues
for the record?
(Mr Corbett) Yes. I am Gerald Corbett,
Chief Executive of Railtrack. On my left is Chris Leah, who was
Operations Director, is now Safety Director, 33 years in the railway;
and Richard Middleton, who is in charge of our relations with
the train operators, who is an engineer, and 25 years in the railway.
2. Thank you. Do you intend to make a short
statement, or may we go straight to questions?
(Mr Corbett) I would quite like to make a short statement,
and I think the best way to start is actually if we are able to
pass round a piece of rail, it is not the Hatfield rail, but pass
round a piece of rail so the Committee can actually see what `gauge
corner cracking' is, because I think that will help facilitate
3. I am sure that will be extremely helpful
and will completely change our attitude. Please do pass it round.
(Mr Corbett) I will explain it. You can see from the
surface of the rail, you will see these tiny cracks, which is
all you see at the top, and then, on the shiny bit, you can see
a crack propagating down into the rail. Nobody understands at
the moment the precise reasons for the speed of propagation. Although
gauge corner cracking has been around for a while, in the last
year it has increased quite significantly. Our initial hypotheses
and the results of the initial work suggest it is to do with the
wheel/rail interface, and that it is to do with more trains, heavier
trains, new trains; it is not confined to the UK, they have a
big problem in Germany and they have a problem in France. And
one of our first actions has been to retain a Professor from Imperial
College to do some work with us, we have also retained Mr Fredericks,
the old BR Head of Research, we have our own metallurgists, obviously,
and we are working with NEWT International, who have got some
international experience on this. But I think it is worth the
Committee just understanding precisely what it is we are dealing
4. Do you have anything else to say, Mr Corbett?
(Mr Corbett) I would just like to say something briefly
about the crash and what we have done since the train crash. The
crash at Hatfield on 17 October was ghastly; we have taken responsibility
for it, once it became clear that the primary cause was a broken
rail. The rail was identified as needing rerailing back in January
but a speed restriction was not put on, which is not acceptable.
Rerailing happened in May, part of the site was rerailed; again
the speed restriction should have been put on the rest of it.
5. Exactly what do you mean by that, Mr Corbett;
do you mean that your contractor did not do what they were supposed
(Mr Corbett) The condition of the track at Hatfield
was appalling, it was totally unacceptable and a speed restriction
should have gone on. There were various times when a speed should
have been put on and they were not, and we need to understand
6. No, I am not quite clear. Are you saying
that Balfour Beatty found these cracks and did not follow the
correct procedure; is that what you are telling us?
(Mr Corbett) It is very early in the inquiry; the
industry inquiry only started on Monday. But I personally have
seen that track, our engineers have obviously seen that track,
and the track is unacceptable and it should have had a speed restriction
on it; and we have to understand precisely why a speed restriction
was not put on it.
7. And do you have an explanation for that;
because you are legally responsible?
(Mr Corbett) The company, Railtrack, is responsible;
whether or not it was Balfour Beatty is beside the point because
we are responsible for the state of the track, and that is our
responsibility, we accept that.
8. But you have very specifically highlighted
this, Mr Corbett, therefore you must have a reason for so doing.
Are you saying that this was discovered very early and that although
you knew that there was considerable difficulty and a speed restriction
should have been put on it was not, you were not informed and
no speed restriction was placed on the line; is that what you
are saying? Can we just be quite clear?
(Mr Corbett) What I am saying is that that track was
decided to be rerailed back in January. What we have not got into
the detail of yet is precisely the condition of the track in January,
but the experts who have looked at the track as it is today think
that it is unlikely that in January it should not have had a speed
restriction put on it. The track was ultrasonically tested in
June, and the ultrasonic tester did not work; we do not understand
why a speed restriction was not put on then and we do not understand
9. The ultrasonic tester did not work?
(Mr Corbett) Correct; and we do not understand
10. You were told that at the time?
(Mr Corbett) Me, personally?
11. Someone in Railtrack, Mr Corbett, must take
responsibility for something.
(Mr Corbett) Railtrack take responsibility, let us
be clear about that. The inquiry will show whether or not the
fact that the ultrasonic tester did not work in July, whether
that was reported to Railtrack. Because we have taken responsibility,
in a sense it is not the core of this issue. We have to understand
why, at all these different occasions, a speed restriction was
not put on.
12. Can I just be clear, when you say it did
not work, do you actually mean that it was done and it appeared
to give the results that the track was alright?
(Mr Corbett) No; no, it did not. It was done, and,
as I understand it, the sounds that it put through the rail just
did not give a reading. And what should have happened is another
testing should have happened immediately thereafter, and, based
on the condition of the track in October, it seems highly likely
that a speed restriction should have been put on then.
13. So if it did not give a reading, what does
that say to the operator, that it was correct or that it was faulty?
(Mr Corbett) The ultrasonic testing equipment might
not give a reason; well, the reason would be because the ultrasonic
tester was not working, yes.
14. When did your company know it was not working,
Mr Corbett, may I ask, through the Chair?
(Mr Corbett) We do not yet know, Mr Stevenson, whether
Railtrack knew that the ultrasonic tester was not working, because
the ultrasonic testing is done by Balfour Beatty. The rail was
ground in early September, which is a standard approach that we
reintroduced a year ago for gauge corner cracking, and then the
crash happened on 17 October. The track had been patrolled weekly
by the maintenance contractor, and the track should also have
been patrolled on a six-weekly basis by the patrolman's boss.
So there has been a big failure, and it is unacceptable, and we
have accepted responsibility for it; but, as in all these cases,
there is a whole multitude of things that should have happened
and have not happened, and that is the subject of the detailed
15. I think we will ask you a series of questions
on all of those points, Mr Corbett, unless I am gravely mistaken.
May I start by asking you, do you believe the Government has still
got confidence in you, as Railtrack's Chief Executive?
(Mr Corbett) The relations with the Government have
progressively improved in the last year. I have regular contact
with Ministers and with Number 10. And I personally have no reason
to suppose that they do not, but that is a matter for Ministers,
not for me.
16. Then do you intend to resign once the immediate
crisis affecting the rail network has passed?
(Mr Corbett) As soon as I knew that it was a crash,
I went straight to the site. I talked to the Minister of Transport
from the site and informed him that if indeed it was our responsibility
I would tender my resignation. That evening it became clear, as
information came through from the site, that it was a broken rail.
I telephoned Sir Alastair Morton and told him I intended to tender
my resignation. At quarter to six the next morning I received
a `phone call from China, from the Deputy Prime Minister, and
I told him the cause of the crash and that I was going to tender
my resignation, and I then went into the office and did that.
The Board met that evening and I did not take part in the Board
meeting, but they asked me to withdraw my resignation, I think,
partly because I got a lot of support from elsewhere in the industry
and outside, and they took the view that at this time continuity
and the leadership that I had been able to bring was important.
17. When the Deputy Prime Minister `phoned you
at that hour of the morning, did he try to dissuade you from handing
in your resignation?
(Mr Corbett) There was a silence at the end of the
18. For how long did that continue, and what
was the next remark?
(Mr Corbett) The Deputy Prime Minister is
19. Very rarely silent for long.
(Mr Corbett) There was a silence; but he was more
interested in understanding what had happened and whether we were
engaged in dialogue with the HSE, and that kind of thing. It was
quite a short discussion, he had stepped out of a banquet to make
the call and I agreed that I would immediately telephone Mr Callaghan
at the HSE, which is what I did, and then I got up and went into