Gerald Corbett - Railtrack


Railtrack was the most controversial of the Conservative government privatisations. The railway was dismembered into over 100 different pieces of which by far the largest was Railtrack which owned and operated the infrastructure. The privatisation was bitterly opposed by Labour who maintained their hostility to the company throughout its existence. Yet Railtrack's annual reports and in a series of regulatory submissions and documents published by the office of the Rail Regulator, under Corbett, train punctuality improved to levels not seen before, investment rose, profits increased, the share price went up and the safety record steadily improved. 1998 was the first year since 1902 in which no passenger died in a train crash. In 1998 Railtrack rescued the Channel Tunnel rail link, which was subsequently delivered on budget and on time. The Financial Times on 12 June 1998 described Corbett as a "hard nosed leader of men and a tough negotiator." By the year 2000, 20% more people were travelling by rail than under old BR.

In September 1997, three weeks after his appointment, a First Great Western express train from Swansea collided with a freight train at Southall, West London, killing seven passengers. Twenty seven months later, in October 1999, another Intercity train collided with a commuter train near Paddington, killing 31 people. It was Britain's worst rail disaster in a decade. Nevertheless, Corbett survived the pressure to resign from his job. Alastair Morton Chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority said in a speech the week following the crash that "Railtrack should be grateful for the leadership Gerald Corbett has shown in the aftermath of the crash".

Labour politicians continually fanned the flames attacking Railtrack. Corbett who became the mouthpiece of the privatised railway, was frequently on TV and Radio defending his company.

A year after the Paddington crash, in October 2000, a train from London to Leeds derailed at Hatfield, resulting in four deaths. Corbett’s resignation was initially rejected by the Railtrack board following wide public support. The Times Leader of 19 October, titled "Staying Power", stated that his departure would be "a disaster for Britain's railways". The same day on the BBC 7 o'clock news Corbett identified the Railways problem as its fragmentation. The railway had been "ripped apart by privatisation". He urged Government and regulators to "think the unthinkable". But he eventually left with a compensation package estimated to be worth £1.3m in total (of which £900,000 was his accrued pension benefit). Christian Wolmar, the well known transport journalist, wrote in his book “On the wrong line”, that “Corbett’s departure just made things worse for Railtrack. He was one of the railway's few class acts” .

Corbett was personified on the London stage in David Hare's "The Permanent Way" and in the television film "Derailed". These dramatisations showed the private tension beneath the public face and noted that Corbett had his own share of personal tragedy. His father was killed at an early age by a drunk driver in a car accident. Corbett is married to an artist. Together they have four children, and he himself is one of five brothers.

More recently, Corbett's time at the Railways has begun to be seen in a different light. In July 2007 in an article in the Daily Telegraph, George Muir, director general of the Association of Train Operating Companies pointed out that Network Rail's delays were still 24% worse than the performance achieved by Railtrack under Corbett in 1999/2000. He said "Gerald Corbett, who everyone was so rude about, had fewer delays in 1999 than Network Rail has now." He went on to say that he was fed up with Network Rail's excuses as "they had been at it for 5 years" and that they had "very significant advantages compared to Railtrack, "more money" and that "delay minutes should now be well below those of 1999/2000". He pointed out that in the same period, the train operators had reduced their delays by 28%.

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