Railtrack chief apologises for lack of sensitivity

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Railtrack chief's executive apologised to relatives of the 31 people killed in the Paddington disaster for describing the pursuit of safety yesterday as "a journey, and you never arrive at your destination".

Railtrack chief's executive apologised to relatives of the 31 people killed in the Paddington disaster for describing the pursuit of safety yesterday as "a journey, and you never arrive at your destination".

Gerald Corbett was appearing at the inquiry into the crash when he made the "insensitive" remark, which so offended some of the relatives that they were reduced to tears.

The comment drew bitter laughter from the public gallery and John Hendy QC, barrister for the bereaved, told Mr Corbett he had upset those who had lost loved ones in the crash.

Mr Hendy asked him: "Do you appreciate the offence that that gave?"

"I apologise," replied Mr Corbett. Outside the inquiry, angry relatives who lost children in the disaster condemned Mr Corbett as "insensitive".

Linda Dilieto, from Cambridge, whose 24-year-old son, Sam, died in the collision between two trains, said: "It was totally insensitive because our loved ones did not complete their journeys.

"Railtrack and Mr Corbett know that relatives regularly attend this inquiry, so he should have chosen his words more carefully. It reduced two or three of us to tears, including myself."

Peter Macauley, from New Zealand, whose son, Matthew, died, said: "The guy is incredibly insensitive."

Earlier, Mr Corbett blamed himself for last month's Hatfield train crash in which four people died, but accused regulators of failing to provide leadership over safety.

Asked who was to blame for the tragedy, Mr Corbett replied: "I think it's me. It is clear in the public's mind that they think it is me." He then went on to share blame with the regulatory bodies for not providing proper leadership.

"We have in essence three regulators. We believe that it needs to be more joined up," Mr Corbett said.

He was understood to be referring to the rail regulator, who monitors day-to-day performance, the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, which has responsibility for choosing the companies to operate the train franchises and setting out long-term plansfor the railways, and the Health and Safety Executive's rail inspectorate, which monitors safety.

"There needs to be an overall vision as to what the railway is trying to achieve and what the plan is," Mr Corbett said. "We believe that all the parties should then be aligned in order to achieve that. If the regulators can get it joined up then it will make things a lot easier to manage."

Railtrack faced an "extremely difficult" task on safety because of fragmentation of the rail network into 100 different parts after privatisation, and the company was left "batting in a vacuum", he added. "In the past, because of the diffusion of accountability, it's not been clear who should give the safety leadership," said the chief executive, appearing in the second part of the Paddington inquiry, which is taking evidence on general rail safety.

"It's like a pressure cooker that's about to explode to the extent that we have not been able to deliver everything that everybody's demanded of us."

Mr Corbett also refused to accept the rail network's safety problems were a management failure.

"It's more of a system failure then a management failure. The organisation has been under huge pressure and it has delivered a lot, but it's not been able to deliver everything," he said.

The record of the privatised railway was "not as bad as perceived".

Asked by Robert Owen QC, counsel to the inquiry, whether performance targets in the industry had damaged safety, Mr Corbett said it would be necessary to wait for a report into the Hatfield crash before he could answer.

The Hatfield crash led to the introduction of speed restrictions and emergency repairs across the network, which - with flooding - will continue to cause severe disruption to rail journeys this weekend.

Services by Great North Eastern Railway will be severely disrupted on the east coast mainline route today and tomorrow, with bus services connecting Doncaster and Newcastle. Trains are operating under severe speed restrictions as they pass through Hatfield - the site of the crash.

On the west coast route between England and Scotland, there will only be two through services each way between London and Glasgow today and tomorrow.