Network Rail Engineering Delays Over The New Year Period HC 284-i)
Transport Committee 23 Jan 2008
Evidence given by: 2.45 Network Rail Ian McAllister - Chairman Iain Coucher - Chief Executive Simon Kirby - Director, Infrastructure Investment Bechtel Limited Thomas M. McCarthy, Senior Vice President, Managing Director, Rail
Q23 Chairman: Forgive me. I understand that. I think the Committee are aware of that but the point I am making to you is that this was a shambles different in kind and in size. This was not the sort of overrun that you get for a couple of hours at the weekend when there is a difficulty. This was a major station, at Liverpool Street, servicing large numbers of people in the city who were coming back to work after a holiday. There were problems which we understand with the CO's ability to be the public face at that time. No one criticises that but did it not occur to you that you should be talking directly to the public about what was happening?
Sir Ian McAllister: When it comes to Liverpool Street, I was contacted on the morning of the overrun by Robin Gisby to inform me what was happening. You have heard that the information only came very late. That was on 2 December. Robin at that time told me that these services would be restored by lunch time. The situation at Liverpool Street was a bad situation. It should not have happened but it was resolved very quickly within a very, very short time period. The issue however at Rugby was rapidly changing, almost hourly, and it was important that the information was properly assessed by those competent to do it. Robin was the person that we had agreed was in the best position to do that.
Q24 Mr. Eric Martlew: If you had your time again, would you do exactly the same thing?
Sir Ian McAllister: With hindsight, who knows? As a result of all these events, we do a post mortem to understand what happened. Could we have done it differently? If we had done it differently, would the results be different? That we will do and we will decide whether or not changes need to be made in the processes. The point I would make is that the structures we followed and the person we appointed was exactly the person who has handled most of the events over the past five years. That is not to say that it could not change but it was an operational problem and the best people to sort that out and give information to the general public ----
Q25 Chairman: It was not an operational problem at that time, was it? It was a major publicity disaster, not to put too fine a point on it. It was a situation that was going to cost Network Rail enormous amounts of goodwill. It was going to destroy all the hard work you have done at the 33 other sites. We are not talking about just a routine overrun. These particular locations were going to cost you enormous amounts of public support.
Mr Coucher: Of course, if we had our time again, we would probably do things differently. Ordinarily, when there is an operational incident on the railway, we always use a director of operations. He is the person with information absolutely at his fingertips and he has the breadth and depth to answer all the questions about all the situations. I would have done it myself. I would have been on site there if I could have been. I was certainly available for all the subsequent days after that. In any normal circumstances, it would have been me standing up there. I made the decision that it was better to use Robin Gisby because he knew the detail rather than, in this case, using the Chairman but we will reflect upon that and perhaps reconsider for future occasions. Of course, we would like not to get into future occasions.
Q26 Mr. Eric Martlew: Sir Ian, is it right that you were not in the office for those four days?
Sir Ian McAllister: I was in constant contact ----
Q27 Mr. Eric Martlew: Were you in the office or not?
Sir Ian McAllister: I was not in the office. As I said earlier, the office is where I am. I am in constant contact. I travel the country and I am in constant contact with the office. At that point in time I was talking to the office and finding out what was going on. I was also talking to Iain and I was talking to Robin Gisby. I was getting regular updates.
Q28 Mr. Eric Martlew: You were not in the office. That was all I wanted to know.
Sir Ian McAllister: No. I have an office at home.
Q78 Mr. Eric Martlew: Mr Coucher, is it a fact that you were over-ambitious? You had too many jobs on and that is why there were not any reserves, if that is what you call them?
Mr Coucher: We were over-ambitious for the right reasons. We were desperate to try and deliver all of this work in a way which did not require any additional time. We knew it was tight. When unfortunately these programmes ran into early difficulties and we looked to get additional resources, we could not bring them in at short notice and still deliver the work on time.
Q79 Mr. Eric Martlew: Because they were working somewhere else on the railway?
Mr Coucher: Yes. Now we will have a complete review of the overhead line resource category. We will see much greater use of Network Rail people doing this rather than relying on agency people who are not loyal to the company. Certainly when we called out the Network Rail maintenance people with experience in overhead line work, they came, they worked and they were loyal. They worked so hard that we had to almost send them home for their own safety as they were working too hard. Going forward, we will be doing much, much more of this ourselves rather than relying on agency people because that is what let us down in this instance.
Q80 Mr. Eric Martlew: Is there a skills shortage on the railway or is it because we have not trained people in the past?
Mr Coucher: No, there is not a skills shortage. We need people we can train and develop. In the past, we have never exhausted the pool of available overhead line staff. This was the first instance where we came across it. Whilst we believe there is a greater case for wider electrification of the railway, we will increase our resources in this and we need to do so probably through Network Rail rather than relying on agency people to do it for us.
Q81 Mr. Eric Martlew: Mr McCarthy, you say it was due to people not turning up. What sort of numbers? How many turned up? What was the absentee rate?
Mr McCarthy: We had a very specific number of people required for each shift. The total resource for the experienced linesmen and supervision was around 65, which are broken up into two shifts a day of about 30 to 35 each. At its lowest point, we were getting less than 50% of those resources showing up for the contractor, at which time we had to take control of the job and work with Network Rail.
Q82 Mr. Eric Martlew: Only half of the people turned up at the worst time.
Mr McCarthy: At the worst time it was less than half, yes.
Q83 Mr. Eric Martlew: Could it be that some of them were working somewhere else on the railway?
Mr McCarthy: We could not establish that fact at the time. Quite frankly, we had to do what we could to get the other resources in outside the contractor.
Q84 Mr. Eric Martlew: Are you trying to establish it now?
Mr McCarthy: We are trying to establish it right now. Our contractor has not given us satisfactory justification for the resources although that is still under investigation.
Q135 Mr. Eric Martlew: Can I take you back to the board meeting in December, Sir Ian? The plans for Rugby, the plans for Liverpool Street and all the other plans for the work over the bank holiday were presented to the board, were they not?
Sir Ian McAllister: No, they were not. The issue there was that at the time the company had asked for an additional day to do the work at Rugby. Virgin had objected to that and had applied to the Office of Rail Regulation for a ruling on whether or not that extra day should be given. The Office of Rail Regulation agreed that that day should be given. The board were advised of all the necessary details supporting that and at the same time the executive team have all these major reviews that take place to determine whether there is a go/no go decision. Ian sought assurances from the various companies that the blockades would take place and the work would be delivered.
Q136 Mr. Eric Martlew: At any point was the board told of all the works that were going to go on over this period?
Sir Ian McAllister: The board was aware of all of those, but the board does not get a regular schedule of every single possession that is taking place because there are about 100,000 possessions a year. What the board is looking for is assurance on certain issues. At the December meeting, or rather shortly after the December meeting, I asked for a paper to be presented to the January board that was going to look at the whole of the possessions on the West Coast Main Line throughout the whole of 2008 and what the appropriate risks were to the delivery of the December 2008 timetable. That paper was overtaken by events over Christmas.
Q137 Mr. Eric Martlew: I am sorry, Sir Ian, I have probably not explained myself very well. It is becoming apparent that Network Rail had overstretched itself throughout the rail network over this period. Did your board sanction that work at any point?
Mr Coucher: Can I just add ---
Q138 Chairman: No, I think the Chairman was being asked. Mr Coucher, we would be delighted to talk to you in a moment.
Sir Ian McAllister: The answer to the question is: no, the board did not go through every single possession and review the work.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
The full transcript may be read here.
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