Running Britain's creaking train infrastructure was a job reserved for 'the strong or the stupid'

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The Independent Online

Railtrack's senior managers drew up the last in a long line of plans to turn around the company's fortunes earlier this year. The name given to this last-ditch strategy was Operation Flush.

As the rail infrastructure company was put into administration yesterday, the strategy's authors were able to reflect on the dangers of a job that was universally regarded as the poisoned chalice of British industry.

The roles of Railtrack's chief executive and chairman have attracted very few candidates in recent years ­ running Britain's creaking railways "is for the strong or stupid", as one observer put it.

The man most closely identified with the company's rockiest period, after the Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield rail disasters at the end of 1999 and 2000, was the rotund and balding figure of Gerald Corbett.

The 49-year-old, whose previous experience including running Dixons and the Grand Metropolitan drinks conglomerate, was considered by shareholders to be the right man to mastermind a more cohesive structure for the network as its chief executive.

After the crash in Ladbroke Grove, in which 31 people died, he resigned, only to be asked by the Railtrack board to resume his role amid promises of improved safety and an overhaul of the infrastructure.

But the pledges were not fulfilled. Mr Corbett's dream of producing a state-of-the-art rail network were shattered when a broken rail caused the crash in Hatfield, killing four people on board.

He said at the time: "I know it's awful for passengers at the moment, but my immediate job post-Hatfield is to make these safety checks and stabilise the network. It will all be better in the new year and people will look back and say: 'Well, they did the right thing.'"

By 17 November last year, Mr Corbett had stepped down after it became clear that he and his company were unable to deliver.

He also managed upset relatives of some of the victims of the Ladbroke Grove disaster in an address to the inquiry into the crash in London shortly before his resignation. In carelessly chosen words, he said: "In the world of commerce, things are never ever perfect. It is a journey, and you never arrive at the destination."

The Railtrack board ushered in Mr Corbett's head of finance and his former Grand Metropolitan colleague, Steve Marshall, 44, as a replacement, amid complaints that he had too little direct experience of railways to cope with the job.

By May this year, Mr Marshall, the only non-graduate head of a FTSE 100 company, had been joined by a new Railtrack chairman ­ John Robinson, aged 60, the chairman of the building group Wimpey.

Both men set about trying to pull back the company from the brink of bankruptcy owing to a bill of £1.5bn for improvements to rails after the Hatfield crash. It is a measure of their efforts that Mr Robinson is likely to be asked to stay on in his role once Railtrack goes into administration, and Mr Marshall is expected to stay with him.

Despite being dismissed by some as a "lardy accountant", Mr Marshall had a good track record for reviving ailing businesses after breaking up the Thorn group and putting its constituent parts on a firm financial footing. The son of a London night-club owner who left school at 18 to score As in his accountancy exams, Mr Marshall aimed to break the Corbett mould by taking a low profile and consulting staff at all levels of Railtrack.

He said earlier this year: "If you're in Railtrack, you have to be ready to accept a high profile and plenty of criticism. But I've been trying to ration my profile. I think the company was suffering from too high a profile."

Mr Robinson has been credited with starting to rehabilitate Railtrack in terms of its public image, if not its finances. In July, he used a speech to shareholders to apologise to victims of the rail crashes (the first apology from a Railtrack executive), and to attack the failures of the industry as a whole.

He said: "I see a railway not performing well. I see internally a lack of clear structure in many areas and extremely heavy bureaucracy almost everywhere. We have not listened enough, not reacted enough, not been helpful enough."

Few would disagree. It remains to be seen if the Railtrack chairman and chief executive can, at last, turn around the fortunes of Britain's railways.