Railtrack boss stays on to face the music

Hatfield disaster: Persuaded to withdraw his resignation, Gerald Corbett is hit by accusations that he had done little to tackle broken rails
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The Independent Online

The chief executive of Railtrack, Gerald Corbett, faced a barrage of criticism yesterday over the company's management of the rail network.

The chief executive of Railtrack, Gerald Corbett, faced a barrage of criticism yesterday over the company's management of the rail network.

Persuaded by his board to withdraw his resignation, Mr Corbett promptly faced accusations that the company had done little to tackle the problem of broken rails, the probable cause of Tuesday's train crash at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in which four people died.

The most damaging criticism came from the Association of Consulting Engineers which declared that continuing cost-cutting by the company was undermining safety. The association's chairman, BrianClancy, said: "Railtrack procurement staff openly boast of driving down the costs of rail maintenance. As salaries and other costs rise, inevitably this is bound in the long run to result in firms not being able to offer as fast or as intensive a service as they would wish.

"Our members believe that Railtrack's current approach is unsustainable. Public safety is not a field in which we can accept a culture of compromise."

Railtrack admitted that the state of the track near Hatfield, where a London to Leeds express was derailed killing four people and injuring 35, was "unacceptable" and it should have been replaced earlier.

Nick Pollard, regional director of Railtrack, said: "We thought the steps taken at the time [at Hatfield] were adequate and obviously they weren't." The question of why speed restrictions were not imposed before the crash would be investigated, he said.

A former British Rail senior operations manager, Peter Rayner, said there was still "an underlying malaise" at the heart of the industry. And the environmental pressure group Transport 2000 said Railtrack intended to spend less on sustaining the network and its contractors had cut the number of staff on maintenance teams.

Rail services on the East Coast line might not be back to normal until the middle of next week. Other lines will also suffer delays, especially those which run through the 81 sites where track has been identified as having "similar characteristics" to that at Hatfield.

Once the police search of the crash site is complete, rail officials said it would probably take around 48 hours to clear the train andthen take several days to repair damaged rails. A spokesman for British Transport Police said officers searching the carriages had found no evidence of vandalism.

The Commons Select Committee on Transport is to hold an inquiry into Railtrack's maintenance record. Gwyneth Dunwoody, who chairs the committee, said MPs were likely to focus on the increase in broken rails. The Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich said it would "certainly be of interest" how the company could send out a letter in April in which it gave assurance that the number of broken rails had decreased. when "everybody else's figures" showed an increase. A recently published report by the National Audit Office showed that the number of broken rails rose to 937 last year and regulators said it had reached 949 in March.

The fourth victim of the crash was named last night as a New Zealander, Robert Alcorn. Mr Alcorn, 37, of Bayswater, west London, was a pilot working for the Formula One driver Mika Hakkinen.

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