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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. It is the first time we have heard it, as a Committee, and we have discussed this many times with you. Do you think that you are up to the job, Mr Corbett, is it too big for you?
  (Mr Corbett) That is not a matter for me. As you know, I tendered my resignation when it was clear that the responsibility for the crash was Railtrack's, and the Board, and with a certain amount of support, deemed that I should continue. If people do not think I am the right man for the job then I will go, I have made that quite clear.

Mr Stevenson

  141. Can I put to you a proposition, Mr Corbett, please. Given that the planned replacement rail at Hatfield was programmed to take place in two phases, which you have advised us about, and, according to your statement of 19 October, where you say that the second phase of that, which was due to take place in November, probably should have been done sooner, and, secondly, the fact that you have advised us today that you yourself and your senior management knew nothing at all about the decision that was taken to close the north of Carlisle West Coast Main Line until after the decision was taken, the proposition I want to put to you is this, that there were two reasons why Railtrack decided to check the rails and 1,800 sites have been checked. One, I think, understandably, was for safety reasons; and the second was that you really had got no idea about the state that the track was in, because your management systems were simply not in place to give you the confidence that you require to judge that your maintenance programme, your management structures, your monitoring and enforcement procedures, were robust enough to give you, as a company, at senior level, the confidence that you require in the railway system. I want to put that proposition to you, and ask for your reaction to it?
  (Mr Corbett) I think the response post Hatfield to check everything was the right thing. We do know track quality, we do know that for every mile of the track. We have a detailed plan in place for broken rails. The maintenance contractor has his maintenance records. We do not yet have the proper asset management system in place; when I joined, at the end of 1997, there was one being developed, it was not the right system and we cancelled it the next year. We did not press ahead immediately with the full-blown asset management system because we had to get ready for Year 2000, and we are pressing ahead with that now. We do have processes in place, those processes have delivered improvements in track quality and fewer broken rails and better train performance, and everything. But, you are right, it is entirely right that after a Hatfield you do go out and check everything, and part of that checking is obviously the state of the track, and, so far so good, no other rails like Hatfield. Part of it also is reviewing our management processes, so that if there are failures in those management processes it does not happen again; we can make the change.

  142. But you know the point I am putting to you. I would have thought it reasonable to assume that your management and monitoring structures, vis-a"-vis your contractors, were robust enough for you to be confident about the state of the railway before entering into this blitz programme you have entered into, understandably, as I say, for safety reasons, I do not think that many would argue about that, although it is a difficult decision to take. But surely it is reasonable to say why did you have to do this; was it not because you had got no confidence in the management structures and the monitoring structures in your sub-contractors that would convince you that the railway system was, in fact, safe?
  (Mr Corbett) No, I have confidence in the processes; we will, I think, have to tighten the processes when we get into the details of the inquiry. But I did not have confidence about—


  143. You are waiting until you get the result of the inquiry before you look at your management structure?
  (Mr Corbett) You cannot change a management process immediately, you actually have to get into it and you have to think about it and come up with the options, and we will do that as fast as we can. What I did not have confidence in our knowledge of gauge corner cracking, and the speed at which it was propagating through the rail; and that was the main reason, that and safety were the reasons why we are carrying out these checks.

Mr Bennett

  144. You have talked to us about the ultrasound machines and you have talked about the trains that put out the red paint, to indicate the faults. Has as much testing in that way been done over the last three years as was done in the past, or have you increased or reduced the amount of testing?
  (Mr Corbett) We have increased the ultrasonic testing in the last couple of years, to deal with broken rails.

  145. By how much?
  (Mr Corbett) It is different for different parts of the network. The high-speed lines have a different regime from the slow speeds. We have increased as we speak, in the last few months we have increased the rate at which the high-speed track-recording car goes round the network, and we have ordered another two, and one will arrive next month.


  146. I am told that you had correspondence with one of the members of our Committee some time ago, saying that there were these wonderful machines, "These multi-purpose vehicles from Germany are intended to be in use this autumn and winter. There are currently some technical problems but they will soon be here," and they have still not arrived; that is in Mersey?
  (Mr Corbett) Do you want to give an update on that, Chris; they have arrived but they have not been let onto the track yet.
  (Mr Leah) Yes. The multi-purpose vehicles came on board, in the first instance, to help us with leaf fall, for frost precautions, and they can do other things. They had been withdrawn, they are here, they had been withdrawn because there was some, shall we say, defect on them which needed to be put right. Hopefully, they will start to come back into service next week, that is the prognosis now.

Mr Bennett

  147. So how much actual testing of the line is going on; is it the same amount or more?
  (Mr Leah) It is more. There are two types of testing. The first is the hand-held testing which the contractors do themselves, they have to do it, it is in the standard, in the line standard, when they find a fault, and, of course, the detection helps find that fault; that is continuing on as it has been done on BR. What was not done at the back end of BR, or even at the front end of Railtrack, was the use of the ultrasonic test unit itself; this had not been used at the back end of the days of British Rail. We have brought that into use now, it has been operating for nearly a year, it is part of the broken rail programme, we are now sweeping the main routes once every two to three months with the ultrasonic test train.

  148. Right; but at Hatfield you did that and it did not bring out the result, so the equipment was not working, is that right?
  (Mr Middleton) Can I just clarify that point. This will come out in the investigation. I do not think it was a question of the equipment not working, I think it was a question that they did not get a signal from the ultrasonic beam when it was hitting the rail because of the condition of the head of the rail, and the standard does allow for that and gives instructions on what to do. What we do not know, and that will come out in the inquiry, is why that instruction was not followed.

  149. Right; so the equipment worked but someone did not take the right action following that?
  (Mr Middleton) That appears to be the case but we do not know that yet, it is subject to the inquiry.

  150. You also said, earlier on, that you reintroduced the process of grinding; when did grinding stop and how much money did you save as a result of stopping grinding of track?
  (Mr Middleton) It stopped in 1995.

  151. And how much money was saved as a result of that?
  (Mr Middleton) I do not have that number, I am afraid.

  Mr Bennett: Was it a significant amount?


  152. You can give us a note on that.
  (Mr Middleton) We can give you a note, yes.
  (Mr Corbett) We started again last year.

Mr Bennett

  153. Can I ask, very quickly, overhead power lines on the railways, are they going to be much more robust when the West Coast Main Line finally is completed, or are they going to be subject to storms and gales?
  (Mr Middleton) The overhead catenary is being completely replaced as part of the West Coast project.

  154. I understand that. I asked you was it going to be more robust?
  (Mr Middleton) And it will be done to a more resilient standard.

  155. And what about rubbish that is left after contractors have worked? I was actually quite impressed at Euston that the contractor there seemed to be clearing up the stuff; but, most of the rest of the West Coast Main Line, you can see stuff left along the railway lines, at the side of them, some of it has been there 20 years, but a lot of it has been left in the last two or three years.
  (Mr Corbett) A month ago Chris and I had a meeting with all the maintenance contractors and we said that we had to deal with this once and for all, and there is a programme in place which will get it all sorted out by ...
  (Mr Leah) All the sites are being identified, the programme being put in place, a blitz up to April and then it will be about 12 months until it is all cleared. There is a lot of both old engineers' stuff, engineers' material from jobs which have recently been done, plus domestic rubbish as well; we want to clear the whole lot away.


  156. We did, of course, draw your attention to this in our report in 1998.
  (Mr Corbett) Yes.

  157. And you have now discovered that you need another 12 months to get it right?
  (Mr Leah) No; it will be progressively done until it is completed.

Miss McIntosh

  158. Just following on from Mr Bennett's question, could the fact that grinding was stopped for four years have been a factor in the Hatfield accident?
  (Mr Corbett) I think that is a very good question. And I think the fact that the rate of rail renewal under BR and in the early part of Railtrack, combined with the deterioration in track quality between 1994 and 1996, may turn out to have been one of the causes for the increase in broken rails in 1998-99, and I think that is something that the inquiry is going to have to look at.

  159. Finally, from me, I hate to ask it at this time but where are we on transferring more freight from road to rail, if you are to meet your objective?
  (Mr Corbett) The ten-year plan has an 80 per cent growth target, and we are busy working up a new agreement with EWS, and we are working closely with the Regulator's office on getting a structure in place so that that can be driven.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 13 December 2000