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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)



  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 fast?
  (Mr Middleton) Yes.

Miss McIntosh

  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 else?
  (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 can.

Mr Bennett

  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 back fast.

  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 envisaged?
  (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 it comes.

  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 problem.

  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.

Mr Bennett

  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.

Mr Bennett

  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.

Mrs Gorman

  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 effect?


  637. Mr Marshall, are you being pressured?
  (Mr Marshall) Absolutely not; we really are not.

Mrs Gorman

  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.

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 27 April 2001