Train fails to take the strain

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AT DAWN yesterday, Britain's newest and most expensive railway began running - and promptly broke down. Passengers hoping to use the new Heathrow Express line, linking Britain's busiest airport with central London, were advised to use the Underground instead.

The Heathrow Express does not officially open for another four weeks, but for the past few months a rail/bus service known as FastTrain has been operating to the airport.

Finishing touches were made over the weekend to the new stations - one at Heathrow Central, the other at Terminal Four - so that a "soft" opening of the new service could take place yesterday. But although the first train departed from Paddington on schedule shortly after 5am yesterday, an hour later the service was suspended. Passengers in a hurry were urged to use the Piccadilly Line - thus saving themselves pounds 1.70 on the one-way rail fare of pounds 5.

Those who chose to wait found that, in the grand tradition of British Rail, information was frustratingly difficult to obtain. At Heathrow Central, the only announcement was made at around 6.30am, warning of a half-hour delay.

The service finally resumed at 7.15am with a heavily laden train, which then proceeded in an alarming staccato fashion. It made four emergency stops on the way to Paddington, attributed by the driver to a faulty sensor on the brakes. Clouds of smoke drifted past the windows of the new Spanish- built train.

The train finally limped in after taking 25 minutes for a journey scheduled to take a quarter of an hour.

The new rail link is already the most expensive per mile in Britain. After it is officially opened next month by the Prime Minister, the present fare will double to pounds 10 single. First-class passengers will pay pounds 20, representing a per-mile rate of pounds 1.40 - more than travelling on Concorde.

t A rail company which ran a special pounds 1-a-ticket service to the seaside said yesterday that it might do it again - despite the chaos which resulted as thousands queued to catch trains home.

Police were called to Brighton station on Sunday night when frustrated holidaymakers had to form a queue which stretched 200 yards down the road.

Yesterday, Thameslink Rail said most of the 20,000 passengers who bought the pounds 1 day return tickets had been happy with the bargain. The money went to charity.

"We may well do something like it in the future, but if we do we will make changes to eliminate the problems we had for a couple of hours this time," said marketing manager Martin Walter.