Great Railway Fiascos No. 8: Trains coming apart at seams

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HUNDREDS OF passengers have been stranded on Britain's busiest commuter line as train drivers speed towards London, blissfully unaware that parts of their trains have "decoupled" themselves and are slowly grinding to a halt.

Connex South Eastern admitted yesterday that last year more than 20 of its trains came apart - more than in all the rest of the United Kingdom together.

Yesterday, it happened again. An eight-coach lunchtime service to Dartford in Kent split in two after leaving Victoria station, causing severe disruption and leaving angry travellers adrift at Battersea.

This latest incident came as a report was awaited tomorrow from the Rail Users' Consultative Committee, which will show that complaints from passengers about the network have soared in two years from 7,000 to 19,000. Meanwhile, officials at the Health and Safety Executive urged Connex to do more to stop its trains breaking apart.

In one case a Channel Tunnel Eurostar train had to go "looking for" four carriages missing from a Connex train that was heading for Victoria. A rush-hour service from Orpington in Kent had developed trouble and passengers were asked to leave the train. As the driver carried on he realised four carriages at the back were missing. The Eurostar train from Brussels to Waterloo in London was ordered to slow down and help to find the lost carriages.

Connex said most of the instances had been in depots and sidings and that coupling procedures had now been changed. All the incidents involved sliding-door Networker trains - some of the newest rolling stock in operation.

"The problem has arisen because drivers have not been correctly coupling the trains," a Connex spokesman said. "We have changed our procedures that drivers have to go through. There's been no question of any passengers being put at danger."

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said that inspectors were aware of the problems. "The HSE is discussing urgently how [Connex's] existing programme of remedial action needs to be improved," she said.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister with special responsibility for transport, said he had asked the HSE to investigate the problem and provide "an urgent report". He also called for the establishment of a high-powered team of manufacturers, suppliers, rail regulators and rail companies, to ensure prompt delivery of new trains.