Saturday 22 October 2016

Safety goes off the rails at CIE

Shane Ross

Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00

SPINNING: Vivienne Jupp, chair of CIE Group, pictured arriving at Leinster House before appearing at a transport committee meeting
SPINNING: Vivienne Jupp, chair of CIE Group, pictured arriving at Leinster House before appearing at a transport committee meeting

COME back John Lynch, all is forgiven. Remember John? The former executive chairman of CIE? We gave the poor guy plenty of stick in this column during his time in office.

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It was great to see the back of the old dinosaur when Transport Minister Leo Varadkar finally replaced him with Vivienne Jupp two years ago. At least, we believed, the new broom's performance in the CIE chair could not be worse than Lynch's.

How wrong we were.

A few weeks ago, aware that Jupp was underperforming, I set out in search of herself.

She never returned a call. Instead she despatched one of the bankrupt CIE's army of overpaid spinners in hot pursuit. We never connected. So it was great news to hear that Vivienne and the anonymous bosses of Bus Eireann, Dublin Bus and Iarnrod Eireann were finally coming to the Oireachtas Committee on Transport to answer TDs questions.

The Transport Committee too had experienced difficulties pinning Vivienne and her team down to a date. It took a frustrated call from the chairman of the committee, John O'Mahony, to Minister Varadkar to haul them in before the summer recess.

Eventually the semi-state chiefs agreed to grace Leinster House with their presence on the final day of the Dail sitting, arriving at a time when other more sensational events were occupying the minds of the media. Abortion and abolition of the Seanad were far more likely to provide fodder for the fourth estate than the annual woes of a semi-state basket case.

So Vivienne and her team slipped into Committee Room 3 in the dungeons of Leinster House at 2.30pm on Thursday. Upstairs, the Seanad was causing convulsions with charge and counter charge of sexism, bitter exchanges on the abortion law and the final spat on its own abolition.

Dying wasps were stinging any target within range.

Almost unnoticed chairman Vivienne, flanked by the bosses of her three divisions, read an opening statement patting herself on the back for screwing the Government for an extra €36m, selling CIE's Spencer Dock site and borrowing even more money from the banks.

It was depressing stuff. The tone was bizarre from a company that lost €300m last year, and whose pension fund is showing a deficit of €480m. CIE has gone over the cliff.

Behind Vivienne and her three male comrades sat four motionless, speechless employees. In her opening remarks – for some reason- she failed to introduce the well-dressed quartet. Perhaps they were bus drivers or railway inspectors?

When asked who they were she looked surprised. Her reply revealed that three of them were spinners, one generously allocated to each division of the supposedly penny-pinching transport company. Her reply about the fourth employee was inaudible.

Spinning is big business down at CIE. No doubt prompted by these publicity props, Vivienne and her three supporting cast attempted to sound upbeat. No one could blame them. With salaries averaging over €200,000 each, plus cars and pensions, the trio were on the pig's back –even if the pig was haemorrhaging at a rate of knots.

Their statements were mostly aspirational, full of meaningless rhetoric about future targets. The present was always described as "challenging". Real information was at a premium.

I had specifically headed for Committee Room 3 to find out the destiny of one of CIE's most lucrative contracts. The award of contracts to favoured suppliers has always – rightly – been an intensely sensitive area at CIE.

Inside sources had told me that the juiciest of all CIE's gifts, the track maintenance contract for Irish Rail, had only recently been decided. This decision was not just a bonanza for the winner, it was vital to every Irish Rail passenger because the prime ingredient required from the successful contractor is a good safety record. Track maintenance is about safety.

When I asked David Franks, the new chief executive of Irish Rail, the monetary value of his division's track maintenance contract, he admitted that he did not know. An astonishing reply from the boss, considering that it is one of the largest contracts in CIE's gift.

He promised to let me know, a feeble exit from a fair question. Happily, I was able to tell the chief executive that the contract he was awarding was worth over €30m.

He just might have been expected to have such a highly significant number at his fingertips. It is, after all, one of the biggest items in the expenditure budget of CIE.

More specifically, he agreed that the winner of the tender had already been chosen. And he admitted that the name of the successful candidate was Balfour Beatty, the UK engineering group. Irish Rail is currently negotiating final terms with them.

Balfour Beatty is a staggering choice to take charge of track maintenance and safety at Irish Rail. They are an outfit with a fatally chequered safety record. They should never have even been considered for the contract.

Why? Let us look at its terrifying track record on safety. Balfour Beatty was fined £7.5m (€8.71m) – reduced from a record-breaking £10m – in 2006 for its part in the infamous Hatfield train crash on the London-Leeds line. In his judgement in the consequent court case, Mr Justice Mackay described Balfour Beatty's culpability for the tragedy as "one of the worst examples of sustained industrial negligence". Four passengers were killed and 102 people injured in the accident.

Furthermore the crash happened even though the faulty rail had been spotted 21 months earlier – but had been left unrepaired.

Balfour Beatty pleaded guilty in court to the charge of breach of safety.

In 1999, Balfour Beatty was fined £1.2m (a record at the time) over the collapse of a tunnel during construction at Heathrow. In another incident, the company was fined £500,000 following a train derailment in Essex. Quite a worrying pattern.

Is this the company that Iarnrod Eireann passengers are expected to trust with their safety?

Indeed, is this a company that Ireland's taxpayers and passengers should be tangling with at all?

Passenger safety does not seem to be Balfour Beatty's only weakness. As recently as 2008, Balfour Beatty was fined £2.25m by the UK's Serious Fraud Office, after the SFO found that there had been inaccurate accountancy practices during a joint venture it was sharing in Egypt.

Mr Franks admitted to knowing all about the fines and about Balfour Beatty's dodgy record. He made reassuring noises to the committee. Balfour Beatty still retained its certificate and licence. It is a reputable company. It had notified the authorities itself of the Egyptian debacle. No doubt it has taken measures to improve its methods.

It emerged during further exchanges that Balfour Beatty was the only company tendering for the Irish Rail job and that the incumbent, Lloyd Rail, had been forced to withdraw from the contest at an early stage because it did not qualify under surprise new terms and conditions.

Balfour Beatty was then selected. Not a very difficult selection as they were the only name in the frame.

Balfour Beatty, the company with the deplorable safety record, has been asked to look after safety at Irish Rail. It had no competitors for a job worth over €30m.

Vivienne Jupp and her new board should immediately collapse the tender process.

Otherwise they should resign for presiding over a complete shambles.

Come back, John Lynch, all is forgiven.

Irish Independent

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