Rail network's 'Mr Fizzy' makes terminal decision

The chief executive
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The Independent Online

Three strikes and Gerald Corbett may or may not be on the way out. The chief executive of Railtrack did not have to wait for even the preliminary findings of the Hatfield inquiry to do the honourable thing and tender his resignation. After Southall in 1997 then Paddington last year, surely no boss of the rail network could survive a third fatal crash on his watch in little more than three years.

Three strikes and Gerald Corbett may or may not be on the way out. The chief executive of Railtrack did not have to wait for even the preliminary findings of the Hatfield inquiry to do the honourable thing and tender his resignation. After Southall in 1997 then Paddington last year, surely no boss of the rail network could survive a third fatal crash on his watch in little more than three years.

But as the board of Railtrack met last night to consider his offer to resign, messages of encouragement began to flood in for the beleaguered Mr Corbett. First from the Transport minister Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, then from the chairman of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, Sir Alastair Morton, and from the Liberal Democrats. Finally, some survivors of the Paddington disaster rallied to Mr Corbett's defence.

As the board began its deliberations on the 13th floor of Railtrack House, next door to Euston station, the directors had three options.

They could accept his resignation immediately. They could defer a decision until the precise sequence of events that led to the derailing of the King's Cross-Leeds express on Tuesday was known. Or they could reject his resignation. Railtrack sources said the second or the third options were the more likely.

Mr Corbett is a fighter. Although he offered his resignation yesterday morning "as a matter of principle", he made clear to fellow executives he would stay if the board chose to back him.

Not long after Mr Corbett joined Railtrack in 1997, from the drinks and fast food conglomerate Grand Metropolitan, John Prescott christened him "Fizzy". The Deputy Prime Minister intended it as a term of ridicule, a reference to the amount of hot air emanating from his small frame.

But equally the nickname captured Mr Corbett's energy and openness and his combative approach to running what had quickly taken over from British Gas as the nation's most hated company.

In the aftermath of Paddington, Mr Corbett immediately went on the front foot, conducting an endless round of television and radio interviews. He even agreed to speak at length to the Daily Mirror, which duly carried out a classic tabloid hatchet job on him.

Mr Corbett continued to commute to work each day from his St Albans home on the West Anglian Great Northern line. By contrast, Railtrack's chairman, Sir Philip Beck, remained so conspicuous by his absence that Sir Alastair Morton at the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority began a campaign to have him removed.

After a year spent coming to terms with Paddington and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the rail regulator over Railtrack's forthcoming price review, it would be no surprise if Mr Corbett decided he has had enough. He is only 49, still young for a chief executive, and has plenty of years left to develop a career elsewhere.

The decision facing the Railtrack board is undoubtedly one that it would rather not have to take. If Mr Corbett does depart, he would leave a gaping hole. The chairman does not have the experience or profile to man the bridge, even temporarily. There is no heir apparent among the executive directors and who from outside Railtrack would accept such a poisoned chalice?

Despite Railtrack's continuing travails, Mr Corbett is largely responsible for the redemption it achieved in the eyes of the City, and from those crash survivors who have the right to be his fiercest critics.

Railtrack's shares have doubled in value since their low point this year in anticipation that it will get a favourable settlement from the rail regulator when he announces his price review next Monday. He has also won the argument that if Britain is to have a 21st-century rail network, it will require vast public investment. Hence the £180bn transport plan announced by Mr Prescott this summer.

As for atoning for Railtrack's accident record, Mr Corbett is somewhere close to receiving absolution. The survivors and the bereaved from the Paddington disaster invited him to attend the ceremony early this month to commemorate the first anniversary of the crash. The wife of one of those who died also asked Mr Corbett if she could lay a wreath in his office. It stayed there until every last bloom had withered.

Last night Mr Corbett was backed by Pam Warren, a survivor who was so badly injured in the Paddington crash that she now wears a face mask. Ultimately, the Railtrack board has to decide if Mr Corbett is himself now critically damaged. As one insider puts it: "The problem is that if Gerald stays then every time he goes on the Today programme there is a danger he will be kebabbed. It would not be good for Railtrack to have a chief executive who looks like a lame duck."

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