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When the dust settled it was clear that Gerald Corbett had to go
At the end of last month's column we left Gerald Corbett, back in the dog house again after his momentary deification within the railways and the media as the Chief Executive who did the unthinkable and resigned when things went wrong on his watch. So why the descent from hero to zero in just 30 days?
In his book The anatomy of courage, Lord Moran postulated that courage is like a bank account. Every time our bravery is put to the test, our credit in the bank diminishes, until we are overdrawn.
Running a railway is the nearest thing in peacetime to war. When things are going right it is exhilarating, when they go wrong, the strains can be immense.
In a traditional railway, as in an army, you were surrounded by professionals who had grown their careers alongside you, had experienced triumph and disaster at progressively higher levels in the hierarchy and, as former Southern Region General Manager Gordon Pettitt put it to me, ‘had learned how to handle crises by watching great men handle crises in the past'.
As last month's quote from <ital>I tried to run a railway<ital> showed, career managers were used to accidents and death on the railway. Thus, when they attended fatal train accident sites they could remain professionally dispassionate. Which is not to say that they did not feel distressed or contrite, but reopening the railway and finding the cause came before emotion.
In those days, too, after an accident the manager in whose region or division it had happened had support from his fellow professionals in engineering and operations who shared responsibility. There would be top down support from a more experienced superior who had been through the same career process.
Gerald Corbett had none of these advantages. He had come to a dysfunctional railway from the hotel industry, where the worst that could happen was someone falling down the grand staircase and breaking their neck.
Worse, Corbett inherited a Board which, with two exceptions, had little more experience of the real railway than he did. True, his first Chairman, Sir Robert Horton, had got a handle on railways and did safety quite well. But Horton stood down to make way for an older man who chose to remain invisible the first time disaster struck at Ladbroke Grove.
If that were not enough, Gerald had no way of knowing if his managers, the Zone directors in particular, were any good at their job. A zone's management shortcomings showed up in red blobs on the Key Performance Indicators of track quality and operating performance that Corbett introduced but unlike Bob Reid 1, who sacked senior managers with no compunction when he became Chief Executive of BR, Corbett had not spent a career lifetime learning ‘who the cowboys were'.
Then there was Gerald himself. While promoted as the original bastard manager from hell, he was really a warm hearted caring bloke. And, as with so many modern managers, he was averse to command and control, preferring empowerment.
Finally, in an industry famously described as heavy engineering in public, Railtrack was light on engineers. This was largely due to his predecessor.
Thus a complex man in a complex industry with an experimental structure and denuded management which needed strong, calm management to deal with a technology induced crisis. Corbett could not provide the necessary grace under pressure that the old railway expected from its managers.
But remember, after Ladbroke Grove Railtrack and its Chief Executive had been anathematised as putting profits before lives. At the Corbett had been excoriated by Counsel representing the bereaved and injured, the Rail Unions and others.
A Tee shirt reading ‘You killed my daughter' in your line of sight while giving evidence would get to most people, let alone a humane man like Corbett. Even so, Ladbroke Grove was an industry accident, the deaths at Hatfield were unequivocally down to Railtrack's, management of its infrastructure and contractors and Corbett was the Chief Executive.
And, after his resignation was rejected, Corbett was tired and emotional (and not in the Private Eye sense) and running on adrenaline. As one senior figure put it, ‘Gerald was over excited'.
Cobett's call for radical restructuring of a railway ‘ripped apart at privatisation' was an understandable reaction in this situation, but it surprised the Train Operating Companies and horrified the politicians the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority. Politically, it was unacceptable because it laid Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott open to the charge that the Government had done nothing to solve the problem after three years in office.
For SSRA Chairman Sir Alastair Morton the last thing the railway needed was another total upheaval, after he had won the prospect of £62billion of public and private spending under the 10 year transport plan. Morton probably mutters ‘we are where we are' in his sleep'. ‘Reorganisation' would make the City even more averse to investing in railways and give the Treasury more time to claw back its (relative) munificence.
Then the gauge corner cracking epidemic spread across the network. Here Corbett was betrayed by his own inexperience and by a privatisation which had happily sold off the railway's own research organisation and said goodbye to the top ranking civil engineers who would have stood firm and given their Chief Executive the confidence to do so.
With no Max Purbrick or Phil Rees to maintain calm we got a scorched earth safety policy. It was as if Corbett had said ‘They want total safety? I'll show them total safety.
This played into the dead hands of the Health & Safety Executive. The day after his resignation offer Corbett declared that in future ‘No broken rail would be acceptable'. The Health & Safety Executive's Chief Inspecting Officer can't have believed his luck: ‘We cannot afford another broken rail' was his endorsement. On Railtrack source told me ‘If we had another broken rail the whole Railtrack Board would have to resign'.
Then Corbett kept an appointment to address the CBI Annual Conference and made a speech that had us all wincing. He claimed that Railtrack had no control over the design of vehicles using its infrastructure, that freight trains applied 14 times more pressure on the track than a DMU and that dedicated freight routes might be necessary.
Coming as proliferating temporary speed restrictions were destroying its members' business, even the normally docile Association of Train Operating Companies was provoked into an angry public rebuttal describing the claim as ‘factually incorrect'. Brian Clementson, Chairman of the ATOC Rolling Stock Group, added bluntly ‘Gerald is wrong'. The Rail Freight Group, ever outspoken, said the speech was ‘ill informed and inaccurate'.
And because the train operators had supported Corbett over his tendered resignation after Hatfield, they had expected reciprocal support in the aftermath of Hatfield.
At an RSA Conference on October 25, it was clear that the disruption would not be over by Christmas. One senior industry figure summed it up as ‘running a wartime railway' with more speed restrictions and obstructions than at any time since the winter of 1947.
Luckily none of those present realised how much worse, much, much worse, it would get, even after the simultaneous flooding had subsided.
Above all, the train operators, mostly old school railwaymen, saw that Railtrack and its contractors had lost the core railway competencies at the grass routes. More than one manager has said that the ‘black macs' the supervisors who made the 24 hour railway run, have simply disappeared.
Finally, there was Gerald's human side. Accompanied by his wife he had taken part in a number of meetings with the Southall and Ladbroke Grove ‘bereaved and injured' groups. He had also visited some of the bereaved from the Hatfield accident. After one such visit he told me ‘It really takes it out of you'.
With the railway in crisis, the Chief Executive should not have been running down his dwindling emotional sources in this way, however well intentioned. But that was Gerald, who in the immediate wake of Ladbroke Grove, still didn't miss the usual cheery phone call to a railway writer in hospital for his fortnightly chemotherapy.
Meanwhile the promised recovery programmes were proving over ambitious. The half year figures contained a hefty, but in retrospect understated profits warning. With confidence in the company falling fast the Railtrack non-executive directors finaly acted. At 14.00 hours on 17 November, at an impromptu press conference outside Railtrack House. Gerald Corbett announced his resignation – saying that his profile had become too high for his own and Railtrack's good.
At the time the story ran that the resignation followed a mighty row with the Prime Minister the night before – something Number 10 took the trouble to deny. But the clue to what really happened was in the compensation to be paid. People who resign of their own volition don't get compensated.
In retrospect the non-execs probably had no option but to show Corbett into the billiard room where the bottle of whiskey and a loaded revolver waited.
So that was that and very sad too, because Gerald Corbett had done some good things for Railtrack and was climbing the learning curve enthusiastically. It could be argued that after Hatfield Corbett let the railway down, but, as he came to realise in his last weeks in the job, ultimately it was the privatised railway that had betrayed him.
Now I expect you want my two penn'orth on who should take over. Forget the usual suspects, Chris Green for Chief Executive, Sir Alastair Morton for Chairman etc. What we want is a boring Railtrack with a firm grip on the business.
So for Chairman, bustlin' Bob Horton should return and become the public face. For Chief Executive the obvious candidate is John Prideaux.
When I mention Prideaux everyone says ‘but his public persona is so uncuddly'. Quite. What we want is a hard case railwayman at the top, who will soon find out who to back and who to sack, who knows what train operators want, who knows the city – he led a successful ROSCO bid, and has big project experience – he took the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to St Pancras in the teeth of BR opposition.
How's that for going out on a limb to start the year?