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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. But am I correct in understanding that they use the track north of York as well?
  (Mr Leah) The trains themselves are turning back at York, mainly, at the moment. They are pathed to Newcastle, but because of the bridge going into Newcastle there is a restriction there. So GNER are actually using them between York and Kings Cross.

  41. Thank you. Can I just ask also, is Railtrack concerned by the competing pressures it faces through, first of all, the fact that the Rail Regulator is imposing the threat of higher targets and higher fines if these are not met for punctuality and other performance targets; whereas it is the Railway Inspectorate that is putting separate and possibly competing targets on the safety aspect? Is that a concern that Railtrack would have?
  (Mr Corbett) The answer is yes. Managing safety on the railway is about managing a whole set of complex interrelationships; because on the one hand you have got growth, on the other hand you have got the requirements for better train performance, and you have got safety, and they are all in conflict and they need to be held in balance. And since privatisation, when the railway was fragmented, it has, I believe, become harder actually to manage that balance, because the accountabilities are more diffused amongst the different companies and because the powers have been separated as well; so I believe that the job of balancing those interests is harder today than it was before privatisation. Having said that, the safety record of the railway factually since privatisation has steadily improved, but I think it is a harder job than it was. And the railway is a very complex system, and if you suddenly jerk one bit of it you will have an effect on another bit of it. And, to an extent, we have seen that in the last week, since the train crash at Hatfield, when we put in place the procedure for investigating all the other sites where we know that there are these little cracks in the rails, and where we put speeds on while we do ultrasonic testing in order to try to ascertain how far down the rail the cracks have gone so that we can then take the necessary remedial action. What we have actually done is reduce the likelihood of a broken rail, but, at the same time, of course, we have also reduced the train performance. And, if you think about it, there is a complex balance between speed, punctuality, number of trains on the network and safety, and that is, I believe, harder to manage now than it was; but that is the challenge, that is what we have to do.

  42. Could I just ask, finally, would Railtrack support calls from, amongst others, this Committee to have an independent Rail Inspectorate and that rail accidents would be investigated in the same way as aviation and maritime accidents are currently investigated?
  (Mr Corbett) Our submission to the Cullen Inquiry supports independent accident investigation. The challenge now for the industry is to get more joined up so that managing this balance is easier than it has been; the Regulator is getting more joined up, and I think the various parties in the industry are getting more joined up. Because on privatisation it was fragmented, the contracts that were set up were largely adversarial, they pointed people in different directions; that has given us all big management problems, and I think we now have to join it up.

  Chairman: We will want to come back to that, Mr Corbett.

Mr Stevenson

  43. Mr Corbett, you have attended this Committee many, many times and I can recall, on a number of occasions, hearing you say that safety is a top priority, and the purpose of my question is to try to delve into that assertion, if you do not mind. Therefore, my first question is asking for confirmation. Would you confirm that you wrote to the Rail Regulator earlier in the year accusing the Rail Regulator of "wasting management time" with his demands for stronger measures to address the problem of broken rails?
  (Mr Corbett) I would like to put that into context. Broken rails have been a top priority for ever. It became a particular priority last year when the number had gone up, and we put in place a big recovery programme, which involved investing an extra £100 million, cold bolthole expansion, reintroduction of rail-grinding, more ultrasonic testing, and so on, and that programme was driving down the number of broken rails. The fact is, we do have a huge agenda, it is monumental, and during the summer there was a debate between myself and the Rail Regulator about what the best way to facilitate delivery was, and whether or not continually demanding more and more targets and more and more action actually was the right approach, rather than prioritising and enabling us to manage. And there were two letters that I wrote to the Rail Regulator, that I copied to the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord Macdonald and Sir Alastair Morton, putting forward this point of view; but those letters also said that, of course, broken rails are a top priority, of course we would co-operate with the consultancy study that he proposed. I did request that instead of immediately having to staff up the consultancy study at the beginning of August we be given a month to find the right people to work on it. We have now had that consultancy study, we have got the draft, and it is very useful, it confirms that we are doing a lot of good things, but it does give us some very interesting pointers for the future; and I believe that is going to be published in a couple of weeks.

  44. So you have put it into context, and I am looking at the graph you have been good enough to supply us with, that broken rails did go up significantly, and now, as you rightly say, they are on a downward path, but they are about the same as they were in 1996-97. So would you accept that the Regulator was correct to bring this to your attention, and would you confirm that you did describe his intervention as "wasting management time"?
  (Mr Corbett) He did not need to bring the facts to my attention because I was aware of them, and that was why we had this huge recovery programme in place. I made the point to the Rail Regulator that I felt attention ought to be brought to things where we did not have programmes and where we were not making progress.


  45. So you resented his having taken an interest in broken rails?

  (Mr Corbett) I think how you regulate a company is a very difficult thing, because the Regulator has huge powers but the accountability is with the company. And I think the key challenge facing the Regulator is to move the company forward at an appropriate pace and get it to deliver what is required in the public interest; that is the Regulator's challenge. We have a very energetic Regulator, and I did feel in the summer that he was trying to cram a quart into a pint pot and that we were being asked to do too many things too quickly, and that it was stretching the front line and was stretching our capacity actually to deliver on everything. And I felt that to have another go publicly on broken rails, when actually we had these huge programmes in place anyway, I did think that that just highlighted the issue of what we are up against.

Mr Stevenson

  46. In the light of recent events, do you think that response, although you have put it into context, as you describe it, that response to the Regulator's intervention, earlier on in the year, which we are discussing, was ill-judged?

  (Mr Corbett) It was not so much the intervention, it was the way it was done. I received a letter saying that we had to staff this up immediately, and then I read about it in the newspapers the next day, and I personally would have preferred an approach whereby the `phone was picked up and the Regulator said "I think it would be a good idea if we had a consultancy study done on broken rails, don't you? I do have to satisfy myself that you are making progress on it," etc., etc., and then we could have worked out what to do and we could have done it more collaboratively. That was really the point that I was making.

  47. I see. Could I now move on very quickly, with Mrs Dunwoody's permission, to a further report that I think does address itself to the safety procedures within your company. Mr Brian Clancy, the Chairman of the Association of Consulting Engineers, which represents most of Railtrack's engineering contractors, as I understand it, is on record as believing that the company's, your company's, continued cost-cutting has undermined rail safety. He is quoting as saying: "Railtrack bosses need to radically alter their approach and accept that more money needs to be spent . . ." How do you respond to that statement from Mr Clancy?
  (Mr Corbett) In the last three years we have doubled our investment, you can see that from the charts, and over 80 per cent of that investment has a safety benefit. We are in the middle of the Train Protection Warning System, implementing that, will cost almost £400 million. So we have significantly increased our investment on safety. And, as you know, the ATP is going to go onto the fast lines. I think the point that Mr Clancy is making is that under the old contracts with the maintenance contractor, that were put in place on privatisation, the payment that the maintenance contractor received automatically just drops, like that, and he is raising the issue whether that financial pressure affects the safety culture at the front line. And I think this is something that does need some serious consideration, because although you can say the legal accountability is with individuals or with a company, and you can say, well, in the contract it says this and that and they have to maintain the railway to standards, and so on, in my view contracts and legal accountability are not actually nearly as powerful as leadership and culture, and I think that is an issue that now has to be looked at. One of the things that has happened on privatisation is that you have got different safety cultures emerging in different parts of the system, and the companies are all under different pressures, and I think it goes back to the point I was making earlier that if you move one bit you move another one.

  48. I do not understand different railway cultures, Mr Corbett. I think I can grasp a safety culture, but I really do not think I can grasp, certainly in this environment, what a different number are. Could I finally move on to your relationship with your sub-contractors. According to press reports, and I am looking at one in the Daily Telegraph, dated 30 October, Railtrack said that it was unaware that one of its contractors had sent a memo. ordering engineers to cut back on train replacements, this is a memo. that allegedly was sent out by GT Railway Maintenance, who was one of your major sub-contractors; the memo. appeared to place a greater emphasis on profit margins than on passenger safety. Is that report correct, you were unaware of that?
  (Mr Corbett) There are 20,000 people employed by the maintenance contractors, they are huge companies, and there are many, many memos that will be going around in those companies that we are not aware of. I think Mr Leah has been dealing with the investigation into that, and perhaps he should comment.
  (Mr Leah) We are talking about the letter that was in the News of the World and the Sunday Times?

  49. Yes.
  (Mr Leah) After reading that letter myself we did immediately follow up with GTRM to see the background and put it into context and see what it was all about; long discussions with their Managing Director, as well as other people in their company. And the memo. which was written and printed in that particular newspaper was, in fact, a letter which clarified, because there was some dubiety, the standards and the advice to give to ultrasonic testing personnel, and it was about two types of defect; and the standard was a standard which could actually have some misinterpretation, and it was all to do with welding.


  50. Just a minute, Mr Leah. You are telling us that you actually had some set of standards, on something as basic as welding, and they were capable of misunderstanding, is that what you are saying?

  (Mr Leah) What GTRM were doing, Madam Chairman, was to make certain that their ultrasonic testers were perfectly aware of the reality and the understanding of those standards; it was to do with the type of defects that are found in a rail. Now the letter went on to say, or the article went on to say, that there were many defects in an area around the Willesden and Kenton area, and it was to do with what we call tache ovale defects in the track, which Richard, as an engineer, would be able to explain more than I, but it also talks about when rails need to be clamped, when they do not need to be clamped, and that they need to be changed or inspected again in 13 days.

  Chairman: I think Mr Stevenson will want to bring you back to the point.

Mr Stevenson

  51. I realise I have asked about four questions, but, I have to tell you, Mr Leah, and I accept this is a problem here, I am becoming more confused as we go on. All I want to know is, do you confirm that, as a company, you were unaware of that memo.?
  (Mr Leah) We were unaware of that memo., yes.

  52. Secondly, you say you are aware of it now, and can I refer then to a part of the report that concerns itself with this memo. that your company was unaware of; and, may I suggest, it appears to me to be a pretty important memo. that your company was not aware of. Dealing with repairs, not testing, not ultrasonic testing, dealing with repairs, the memo., according to the report, says, and I quote: "Repairs would then be carried out" repairs, mind you, "at the discretion of the repairers, if they have the resources to do that." (A) Do you give your sub-contractors that discretion; if you do, do you not think it is a pretty dangerous practice to embark upon? And I certainly would welcome your reaction to (a) that part of the memo. and my questions as a result.
  (Mr Leah) We do not give discretion. There are two issues here, classification 2(f) and classification 2(c). Let me tell you what those are, and you will see there is no discretion. Two, means that clamp plates must be fitted immediately to the rail, and (c) means that that defect must be removed within 13 weeks, or seven days if it cannot be clamped. And (f), 2(f), means fit the clamps and weld and repair to the engineer's timescale, and that engineer's timescale is one that is also laid down. So that is pretty well tied up and documented. And that is what has been returned to me from GTRM, that they have abided by that instruction.

  53. But, clearly, if this memo. is confirming it has been confirmed by you, even though your company was not aware of it, it would appear from the contents of that memo. that GT are giving you some information, or want certain information, and they are sending out memos to their staff that does things entirely differently?
  (Mr Leah) That can be further investigated. The memo. which came from GTRM, of course, I requested it from GTRM because of the newspaper reports, and I asked them to put it into context and I asked them to confirm to me that what they were doing, especially in the geographical area that was outlined, were within our standards, and they have confirmed to me that it is within their standards.


  54. But have you asked them whether it is true that anybody doing ultrasonic testing who finds a crack is asked not to go any further, and that, in fact, many of them are being reclassified not as a crack but as a defect, which, of course, would mean they did not have to have a speed restriction?
  (Mr Leah) I have not asked that question.

  55. Is it not a good question to ask? Do you not think, in the light of the fact that there is some worry about ultrasonic machines, some that do not work, some that are not available, some that may be misinterpreted, perhaps you need a little clearer instructions on the interpretation of ultrasonic sound?
  (Mr Leah) Absolutely. We did ask the question though of GTRM regarding their ultrasonic records, and their ultrasonic records have been inspected, especially with the derailment that happened at Stafford, which was a broken rail, not long after the tragedy at Hatfield, and those records were kept and were kept in a way that we would think they should have been.

  56. But you did not ask them whether, in fact, there were any cases of anyone using ultrasonic equipment who had been told if they found a crack not to proceed?
  (Mr Leah) That question was not directly asked, no.

  Chairman: I see.

Mr Gray

  57. A moment ago, you seemed to accept, Mr Corbett, that there was some conflict, or might be some conflict, between performance incentives and penalties and safety. Do you think that conflict played any part at all in the events leading up to the tragedy at Hatfield?
  (Mr Corbett) I think there is a conflict between performance and safety. It is easy to give an example. If you have got a London terminus and you have got 200 trains going into it at 30 miles an hour, and then the next year you have 300 trains going at 60, manifestly you have got two different types of risk; but it is our job to balance those different factors and to ensure that the railway is safe, that is our responsibility. It is too early to say from Hatfield yet whether that balance went wrong locally, but it is fundamental to the investigation to understand why those speed restrictions did not go on when it is the individuals' jobs to put them on, it is in the contract that they should put them on, it is their legal accountability, and so on. And I think we do have to understand whether or not there is not an issue at the front line in the maintenance contractors within Railtrack about that, and that maybe the driving to meet performance targets has, as it gets lower down the organisation, created a sort of noise and a set of effects that we did not intend to. Certainly, nothing that has come up to me, in my position, has suggested, until Hatfield, that this was an issue, because we see the safety indicators basically all moving in the right direction, and the programmes we put in post Ladbroke Grove have all re-emphasised the absolute importance of safety. But we do need to understand better on the front line what the impact of the drive for performance is.

  58. So would you agree with the Regulator when he said, in the Financial Times, "good management of performance and safety are entirely consistent and inseparable"; would you agree with that assessment?
  (Mr Corbett) I think that if you overemphasise one particular part of the equation you affect the other part, and I think that good management is about balancing it.

  59. So you would not agree with the Regulator really, you are saying it is about balance? But he said the two are inseparable and good management of the railways equals safety; but you are actually saying the two might well be, there may be a conflict between safety and incentives, and so you would therefore not agree with the Regulator at all then?
  (Mr Corbett) I think it is harder to balance the safety performance equation if you have a set of external pressures on you that are focusing on one particular bit of it. I do think it is harder to balance it; but that is our job, to balance it.

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