Gerald Corbett: from principle to panic in a fortnight

It is not sufficient to say, as Railtrack's chief has: "We have got to bash on and get it sorted"
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The Independent Online

Ten days ago, Gerald Corbett, the chief executive of Railtrack was being praised for accepting responsibility for the Hatfield disaster and offering his resignation. Now the public mood is darkening once more. The leader who understood his duty when faced with the Hatfield deaths is being replaced by an image of a chief executive who, overwhelmed by panic, has brought the entire system into chaos with hundreds of speed restrictions and closures. The worst example was shutting down most of the West Coast mainline in Scotland with only 14 hours' notice. Such hasty action had been, Mr Corbett later admitted, "a mistake".

Ten days ago, Gerald Corbett, the chief executive of Railtrack was being praised for accepting responsibility for the Hatfield disaster and offering his resignation. Now the public mood is darkening once more. The leader who understood his duty when faced with the Hatfield deaths is being replaced by an image of a chief executive who, overwhelmed by panic, has brought the entire system into chaos with hundreds of speed restrictions and closures. The worst example was shutting down most of the West Coast mainline in Scotland with only 14 hours' notice. Such hasty action had been, Mr Corbett later admitted, "a mistake".

Of course, many people in the rail industry would like there to be just one scapegoat and Mr Corbett is the obvious candidate. That would suit the contractors working for Railtrack; it would take the pressure off the rail regulator; it would give the rail operators a ready-made excuse for their own considerable failings.

That is why one should treat revelations from leaked documents with care. This is not classic whistle-blower activity. That tends to take place when a disaster is waiting to happen, not afterwards. The post-Hatfield leaks almost certainly originate from frightened executives desperately trying to avoid having to walk the plank themselves.

Thus, a Railtrack memo dated September 1999 surfaced last week, in which the company stated: "We are being inundated with defects ... it is not practical or cost-effective to cut all of them out of the track immediately when some can afford to wait until they are re-tested." Staring at that sentence alone, I don't find it self-evidently proof of a cavalier attitude to rail safety. It could well be the wise judgement of an experienced Railtrack manager.

Then last week the Association of Consulting Engineers said that continuing cost-cutting by the company was undermining safety: "Railtrack procurement staff openly boast of driving down costs of rail maintenance." Again, a moment's thought suggests that Railtrack staff may have been doing no more than making sure the rail contractors were not taking them for a ride.

In making a case against Mr Corbett's continuation in office, the charge sheet should concentrate on those matters over which he has direct control. I am suspicious of criticisms that pay no attention to the state of the system inherited by the company or that ignore the fragmented nature of the industry or its fiendishly complicated financial arrangements or the mistakes and omissions of Mr Corbett's predecessors. Indeed, if all the suspects were to be arraigned, the list would have to include, for instance, the Tory Chancellors of the Exchequer who starved the system of funds.

Looking, then, at Mr Corbett's personal responsibility, I would start with two key relationships - with the contractors that actually carry out track repairs and with the rail regulator, Tom Winsor.

It is Mr Winsor himself who has shed light on the first. Whereas I had sensed a bad relationship with contractors, Mr Winsor has been specific. He said last week that Hatfield resulted from the failure of a single relationship, between Railtrack and its contractor, Balfour Beatty, which was paid to maintain the track. As to the second relationship, one cannot fail to be struck by the tone of a letter from Mr Corbett three months ago to Mr Winsor, in which the regulator was accused of "wasting management time" with demands for tougher action on broken rails.

Strained relationships, of course, are intrinsic to any activity vigorously pursued.What executive does not have fallings out from time to time with particular suppliers, customers, and so on? But some relationships are so crucial that if they are allowed to deteriorate into mutual incomprehension, then the viability of the business itself is put at risk. The executives I admire are those who can hold their ground, make no concession on basic principles, yet avoid bad feeling.

If these matters are hard to analyse from the outside, the quality of Railtrack's performance in handling the consequences of Hatfield is clear to see. In effect, the company has decided it is better to compress the necessary inspection and repairs into the tightest possible time, at the cost of stupendous disruption, rather than proceeding at a more measured pace with the risk of further accidents. Choosing between these two courses of action is difficult. What Mr Corbett and his colleagues have failed to do, however, is to explain clearly that this is what they have decidedand these the consequences. It is not sufficient to say, as Mr Corbett has, "We have got to bash on and get it sorted."

Mr Corbett, I suspect, is not a leader but a hard-pressed chief executive with some serious shortcomings.

aws@globalnet.co.uk

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