Passenger safety took second place, admits Railtrack boss

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The Independent Online

Gerald Corbett, the embattled chief executive of Railtrack, has admitted that passengers' safety has taken second place to punctuality.

Gerald Corbett, the embattled chief executive of Railtrack, has admitted that passengers' safety has taken second place to punctuality.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that Mr Corbett has sent an extraordinary letter to the Cullen inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster accepting that maintenance standards suffered in the drive for improved performance.

However, Mr Corbett, who is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday, refuses to take the blame. Instead he points the finger at the tough performance targets set by Tom Winsor, the rail regulator.

The Cullen investigation into the fatal crashes at Southall and Ladbroke Grove, west London, which begins its second stage this week, will recommend a series of safety measures in its report, due out next year.

Mr Corbett's intervention will intensify the personal conflict with the rail regulator and their poor relationship is certain to be examined by the inquiry into the Hatfield crash, in which four people died.

In the letter, of which Mr Corbett sent a copy to ministers, the Railtrack chief is said to have protested that the regulator was "wasting management time" with his demands for tougher action on broken rails. A broken rail was the cause of the Hatfield crash.

That letter could prove damaging for Mr Corbett. Ministers believe he could come under pressure to go when the "paper trail" of correspondence is made public in the inquiry. They are furious at the way that Railtrack has sought to shift the blame to the regulator.

Last week Tony Blair ordered Mr Corbett to "get a grip" on the stricken rail network which this weekend has seen the biggest shut-down for 100 years as Railtrack carries out checks and repairs.

Mr Winsor has been pressing the Railtrack chief to take action on the rising number of broken rails for more than a year. He warned Railtrack that it was failing to meet safety requirements and, with the Health and Safety Executive, called in a firm of American consultants to investigate.

The Colorado-based Transportation Technology Centre Incorporated is due to report next month.

Last week neither the Rail Regulator nor the Health and Safety Executive were willing to endorse Mr Corbett's handling of the issue.

When asked if his response to their concerns over broken rails was acceptable, a spokeswoman for the regulator said: "Our actions have spoken for us. On 4 August we decided to appoint independent consultants to look at the situation."

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said: "Mr Corbett is in no doubt about our seriousness."

A spokesman for Railtrack said that the issue of broken rails was taken very seriously.

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