Catastrophe came after company took its eye off the track

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The Independent Online

Railtrack richly deserved its reputation as Britain's most incompetent company. Its creation was one of the last despairing acts of a Conservative government ideologically committed to privatisation. It has proved, time and again, to be a sell-off too far.

To a chorus of foreboding, the infrastructure company was launched into the private sector just months before Labour won a landslide election victory in 1997. The stock market saw Railtrack as a business with a rich property portfolio. And it proceeded to behave as if running the rail network was an impediment to the pursuit of profit.

Catastrophic evidence that the company had taken its eye off the track came on 5 October 1999 when the 8.06am service to Bedwyn, Wiltshire, left Paddington station. The train passed a red light at signal SN109 and smashed virtually head on into a Great Western express, killing 31 people.

After previous inquiries into such accidents, drivers had been blamed. But SN109 had been passed at red eight times before and in June, Lord Cullen, who conducted the public inquiry, had no doubt where the primary blame lay. In some of the most damning language ever used by an inquiry chairman about a large public company, Lord Cullen accused Railtrack of "lamentable" failures and "dangerous complacency". In months of hearings last year, Lord Cullen had heard how the pressing issue of SN109 had disappeared into a fog of bureaucracy and inertia.

Lord Cullen's findings prompted the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith, to resurrect his inquiry into the possibility of bringing manslaughter charges against Railtrack executives.

In October last year, as senior managers pondered whether they could find themselves behind bars over the Paddington disaster, an express operated by Great North Eastern Railways jumped the track near Hatfield, killing four people.

A day after the crash Gerald Corbett, Railtrack's chief executive, offered his resignation when it became clear that the company knew about the state of the track near Hatfield some nine months before the tragedy. The phenomenon of "gauge corner cracking" had caused the train to leave the rails.

Ministers decided there should be no full public inquiry into the crash but it became clear that Railtrack had not only contracted out maintenance of the line to the engineering companies Balfour Beatty and Jarvis but had also absolved itself of responsibility.

Mr Calvert-Smith is considering manslaughter charges over the Hatfield crash. Executives at Railtrack and Balfour Beatty are known to be under investigation.

In the wake of the Hatfield crash – and after an onslaught from the media – Railtrack set about a massive nationwide engineering project which provoked the worst peace-time disruption of the rail network.

At its peak, the infrastructure company imposed 1,200 speed restrictions, causing huge delays and cancellations, aggravated by widespread flooding.

What made it worse, however, was that Railtrack directors kept on promising the industry was about to get back to normal. First, it was all going to be fine in a matter of weeks after the Hatfield crash. Then it would all be completed after Christmas, then by the end of January, then by Easter, and then 1 May. In reality, the network is still suffering from the post-Hatfield engineering work, partly because the company has had to postpone other projects to deal with it.

The quest to discover gauge corner cracking and the work to eradicate it cost the company billions of pounds, eating into money it was supposed to spend on improvements to the system. Railtrack's reputation as – at best – an uninterested steward of the national rail network was underlined when the board finally accepted the resignation in December of Mr Corbett.

In his place, the company appointed Steve Marshall, a 43-year-old accountant with 11 months' experience of the railways. Arguably worse was the appointment of Jonson Cox as chief operating officer. He had been in the industry for 11 weeks, and was dismissed in August because he was not up to the job. Over the past year, Railtrack has had two chairmen, two chief executives and three finance directors. Unlike the rest of us, Mr Cox will receive some comfort for his failure. He will draw his salary until he finds another post.

The largesse afforded Mr Cox, however, pales into insignificance when compared with the pay-off extended to Mr Corbett when fellow directors finally accepted his resignation in December. He walked away from his £377,000-a-year job with about £1m. Mr Corbett went off to run Woolworths, a position for which many in the rail industry thought he was better suited.

Passengers were annoyed by his "golden goodbye", but they were even more annoyed in the spring when the company paid out a dividend to shareholders worth £120m.

Railtrack's dire image made it difficult to attract a successor to the chairman, Sir Philip Beck, who came under fire for keeping a low profile in the wake of the rail disasters.

In March, Sir John Parker, 59, chairman of the Lattice group, rejected the post at the last minute, citing family reasons. He was at least the fourth candidate to turn the job down.

Not only was Railtrack struggling – and failing – to meet the demands of Government and passengers, it was also stuck between the Rail Regulator, the Health and Safety Executive and the Strategic Rail Authority. The regulator wanted better performance immediately, the HSE sought state-of-the-art safety measures and the SRA demanded Railtrack deliver major projects to improve the network. The man who finally accepted what must be one of the most difficult jobs in British industry was John Robinson, who took over in June.

Mr Robinson has since berated his own company for tolerating a huge bureaucracy pushing paper at the Euston headquarters but inhibiting the prospect of any decisions being made. There should be more people in the front line, he declared. Alas, the new chairman has wielded the new broom too late to rescue Railtrack.