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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



Mr Donohoe

  100. So you did not know at all; they closed this line without you being notified, is that right?
  (Mr Corbett) I found out after the decision had been taken, yes.

  101. How long after the decision was taken did you know about it?
  (Mr Corbett) A few hours.

  102. I understood that, just as with the operating companies, the train operators, I have been with directors from these companies and they have got a pager that tells them immediately there is a problem; you have not got anything like that facility?
  (Mr Corbett) No; however, I have a mobile `phone, and one of the things that went wrong was the front line not communicating with back at the ranch.

  103. When were the train operators notified?
  (Mr Corbett) They were informed very late in the afternoon. The closure started at 8 o'clock in the morning and they were informed at 5 o'clock the afternoon before.

  104. So what consultation was there that this was going to happen then; very little?
  (Mr Corbett) There was relatively little consultation. The local people took the decision that it was going to be easier to close the line and do the checking and the necessary work and then re-open, rather than having days of temporary speed restrictions. That was not a decision that they should have taken by themselves.

  105. Obviously, you must, I am sure, have had a post mortem as to how this decision came to be; but what was in the minds of those who took the decision?
  (Mr Corbett) I went ballistic when I found out. And, I am afraid, what it was is, and again it relates back to the structure of the industry, that at Railtrack we tend to think about the infrastructure, because that is our accountability, and the reaction on the ground was to think about the infrastructure and the particular problems they had, rather than the impact on passengers, and that was not good.

  106. So if you had gone ballistic, Mr Corbett, was anybody's job, has anybody been disciplined because of this?
  (Mr Corbett) People have been spoken to, but at the moment there is so much work to do. We have got a review going on, chapter and verse, exactly what happened. But at the moment disciplining people and firing people, and that sort of thing, is not the top priority. The people who made the mistake know what the mistake was. Scotland is actually one of our best-managed zones, and they are good people, and so I would not blame them.


  107. But, surely, the problem was not necessarily with them, it was the fact that you do not have in place systems which mean they automatically tell the management of major decisions. So although we keep saying this is a local decision, you went ballistic, it was very difficult, what kind of management is it that does not tell its senior management when it takes a major decision of this kind; they certainly did not tell the Duty Officer at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions?
  (Mr Corbett) No; I agree. But the local people do have the accountability for the safety of the line; that is their job, and they have the legal accountability. And if they get their judgements wrong they can be prosecuted.

Mr Donohoe

  108. So do you think in this instance that we have got a situation where local managers panicked, and subsequent evidence suggests that that was the case, because there was nothing found that was wrong in that section, was there?
  (Mr Corbett) Whenever you ultrasonically test you do find defects, and then you deal with the defects. I do not think they panicked, I think they interpreted an instruction in a particular way without thinking about the broader issues, and I think it was unfortunate that there was not more communication. And that has not happened anywhere else. For the whole programme we have got going at the moment, we now have a process, so the local people on the ground, for each site they investigate, they feed in their recommendations through a zonal team and then they feed them into the central team, so that we have actually syndicated the decision. Because one of the issues we face is, when the local and the legal accountability just sits with a guy on the front line, that is actually not an efficient way of managing the process of investigations we have got going at the moment.

Mr Donaldson

  109. Mr Corbett, taking you back to Hatfield, when did Railtrack first become aware of the deterioration of the track on this section of line?
  (Mr Corbett) It appears, from the initial investigations, that we became aware in January, but this is early days in the investigation; and that was when it was scheduled for renewal.

  110. And following that then there was some work that started in the spring, but it was stopped; why was it stopped?
  (Mr Corbett) The work was split into two possessions, one in May and then a later one this autumn.

  111. Was that decision taken at the beginning, or was it when the work was under way that a decision was taken to halt it and reschedule it for the autumn?
  (Mr Corbett) I believe that that was taken when the whole thing was planned; it was planned as two lots.

  112. And who took those decisions?
  (Mr Corbett) Those decisions would have been taken by our track engineering consultation with our renewals contractor.
  (Mr Leah) It would be with the zone track engineer and the contractor, with the condition of the track; they would check the site and decide, and then they would go through the planning process to take the possessions.

  113. And whose decision would it have been not to impose speed restrictions on this line, this particular stretch?
  (Mr Corbett) The contractor has the accountability, but also our track engineers, if they deemed that the condition of the track warranted a speed restriction, it would be up to them as well; and this is one of the things that has got to be investigated in the inquiry.

  114. And, so far as you are aware, the contractor, which I believe was Balfour Beatty, did they at any time make a recommendation to your local management that there should be speed restrictions imposed?
  (Mr Corbett) The initial indications are no.

  115. They did not?
  (Mr Corbett) That is correct; but this is very much early days, in an inquiry which will take quite a long time, because there will be many factors involved. But the initial view is no.

  116. When you talk of a local failure, to whose part do you subscribe that failure?
  (Mr Corbett) I think we will find that we failed and that Balfour Beatty failed, and we will have to rethink the way that we audit, the way that we check, the way that they report, the chain of command, the accountabilities, and the whole management process around the maintenance companies, we will have to revisit that. And we are going to do that in conjunction with Alastair Morton, who has set that up as one of the work streams designed to resolve, as he puts it, the industry's tensions at the moment.

  117. But does not that suggest, Mr Corbett, that this is more than a local failure? Does it not suggest that the systems in place, put in place by Railtrack, did not pick up on this problem, that those systems are systems used right across the country? And that, whilst you talk of a local failure at Hatfield and a local failure on the West Coast Main Line, is not the reality that it is your systems that have failed to pick up where there are problems, and that, therefore, it is not just about a local failure, it is about the failure of Railtrack's systems to identify where there are local problems?
  (Mr Corbett) We have not yet found a rail in the Hatfield condition anywhere else in the country, and we have investigated 1,800 sites. Now that has got to be validated from the ultrasonic testing, but that is where we stand today. I think that, when there is big human failure in several of the different chains, we have to say that our processes are not strong enough to pick that up; but this has got to be what the inquiry is all about, and any changes we have to make to strengthen that we will make and we will implement.

  118. But if you were confident, Mr Corbett, why then have we got all these checks going on right across the country; if you are confident that this is a local problem then why all the disruption that is occurring? Why have you initiated all these checks, if you are confident that this was a human failure, at a local level, and not a failure of your systems?
  (Mr Corbett) Because none of us understands the speed at which the gauge corner cracking is propagating into the rail, and we did feel that after, we took the decision, it was a tough call to make but I think it was the right one, we took the decision that we would go out and check every site, and that where we were not happy with the size of the crack in the top of the rail we would put the speed restriction on and we would rerail. Now that is unpopular, nobody likes it and it disrupts the service, but I think, as we settle down the service next week and it steadily improves, people will look back and say, "Yes, they did the right thing, they did respond, they did go out and check everything and they confirmed that the railway was safe."

  119. So the problem then is not the failure in terms of human decisions, the problem is the speed at which these cracks result in a broken rail?
  (Mr Corbett) It is going to be both. The condition of the rail at Hatfield was unacceptable; we have taken responsibility, we should have known about it. There will be a whole series of different causes as to why there was not a speed restriction on that line, which there should have been, and that will be investigated. I think a fuller statement at the moment would be premature, because prosecutions are likely to be involved, and I have learned, from Ladbroke Grove, that these things are far more complicated than they initially seem and take a long time to sort out. But the rail had suffered from severe gauge corner cracking, and I think it was right that we should go and check everything.

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