The two explosions which followed at Wilmslow in Cheshire caused serious disruption to railway traffic in the North-west. Two firefighters investigating the first device were just 200 yards away when the second went off, rocking the town. Debris from a signal relay box damaged in the incident was scattered across 100 yards of the railway embankment and a new road bypass.
Ian Moody, Cheshire's assistant chief constable, said the explosions "bore all the hallmarks of the IRA", and John Major condemned the attack as a "two-fingered assault on democracy".
The IRA said yesterday it remained committed to bringing what it called the British government's undemocratic rule of Northern Ireland "to an end once and for all". In a hardline Easter message, IRA leaders said they stood "ready to face their responsibilities in facilitating a process aimed at securing a lasting resolution to the conflict between the British government and the Irish people".
John Grieve, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch who joined the Wilmslow investigation, asked all members of the public to be vigilant and appeals for businesses to keep any closed-circuit television tapes for inspection. "All our successes in recent years have been driven by help from the public," he said.
Asked whether the bombers' intention was economic sabotage or to kill, he said: "All terrorist devices threaten human life, that's what their purpose is. [But] there are economic elements to the way terrorists behave."
The first indication of the attack came in a telephone call to a private address in Wilmslow at 5.30am which warned of a bomb left at the town's police station. Police were alerted and were evacuating both their station and neighbouring homes, when another call to a Manchester hospital raised the possibility that another type of station was intended.
As officers extended the alert, a bomb went off at 6.30am on railway tracks 40 yards from Wilmslow station platform and not far from a leisure centre to which more than 80 people had been taken for safety.
Paul Gozem, one of those moved, said: "What the police had in fact done was take us a damn sight closer to the bomb."
The evacuees were moved again before the second blast 35 minutes later. But households next door to the railway station knew nothing until they were woken by the blast.
Karen Lindsay, who lives opposite, said: "It was this explosion which you knew wasn't a normal noise. It shook the house."Denise Moore added: "I was quite surprised that we weren't evacuated. I guess they didn't really know what was going on."
Passengers on four trains on the line at the time were stranded but eventually rescued. Local rail services were cancelled although the main West Coast line from Manchester to London remains largely unaffected.
Similar bomb warnings at Doncaster, South Yorkshire, closed the East Coast line for some time but it reopened when nothing was found. Army bomb squad officers combed the Wilmslow site before detectives moved in to investigate.
The station was expected to reopen today but a Railtrack spokesman said there would be some disruption to services. The damage to track was unknown.
Police have warned since before Christmas of an increased threat of a bombing campaign prior to the election.
The Wilmslow attack is the latest in a number of attacks in the region. Last June, a huge IRA bomb devastated the centre of Manchester, and four years ago two schoolboys, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, were killed in Warrington.