Britain's rail system grinds to a halt

West Coast mainline shut
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The Independent Online

Britain's rail system descended into chaos yesterday after the West Coast mainline was suddenly closed down and 150 speed restrictions were imposed, leading to delays and cancellations to hundreds of trains.

Britain's rail system descended into chaos yesterday after the West Coast mainline was suddenly closed down and 150 speed restrictions were imposed, leading to delays and cancellations to hundreds of trains.

The decision by Railtrack to close down the West Coast line in Scotland for a three-day safety inspection of the route paralysed rail services across northern England and Scotland. More than 45 long-distance train services were cancelled or rerouted.

One rail industry source said the crisis was the worst the industry had experienced: "In terms of the disruption and temporary speed restrictions, it's not so much unprecedented in peace-time as simply unprecedented."

But the crisis slipped into farce last night after Railtrack said it would reopen the 50-mile stretch of track north of Gretna later this morning, two days earlier than planned, after a furious reaction from the train operators Virgin and ScotRail and passenger groups.

The backlash forced Gerald Corbett, Railtrack's chief executive, and Jeannette Anderson, director of Railtrack Scotland, to issue "unreserved apologies" for the immense disruption caused by the line closures and speed restrictions. Mr Corbett said it was "a mistake" to give rail operators only 14 hours' notice of the closure.

But Mr Corbett warned that yesterday's chaos could be a foretaste of further disruption over the next few weeks as the company battled to inspect and repair tens of thousands of miles of track in the wake of the train crash in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, last week, which left four people dead.

He said Railtrack needed to "blitz" the network to detect and repair damaged or broken rails across the country. "It's going to be an extremely difficult week," he warned on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "We must manage safety first. It is the total priority. I do apologise for the problems it will cause passengers, but they and we must be totally confident of safety."

Railtrack later confirmed the inspection and repair programme was likely to last for several months, making continued delays "inevitable".

However, Sir Alistair Morton, head of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority, accused Railtrack of "over-reacting" by closing the line for a simple safety inspection. He said the company had "to remove as quickly as possible every obstacle to normal operation by the train operators".

Last night, Sir Alistair announced that the 25 rail operators and Railtrack would announce later next week where the worst-hit places would be. Speaking after a meeting in London between the train companies and Railtrack, he added that a new working party would be set up to cure the worst conflicts within the privatised rail network.

The scale of yesterday's reaction is likely to force Railtrack to reassess its tactics by spreading the safety checks out over a slightly longerperiod.

Speaking in the Commons, Tony Blair admitted the rail system was in "chaos", but insisted the blame lay with the privatisation process and chronic under-investment by the Conservatives. He said the Government would invest in the service as quickly as possible, but warned that "it is going to take time".

Both Virgin and ScotRail are expected to ask Railtrack to meet the hefty compensation claims from passengers affected by the disruption, which hit 40 Virgin Crosscountry trains serving southern England, the Midlands and Scotland. ScotRail cancelled eight sleeper services, stranding 300 sleeper passengers.

The West Coast line closure was ordered by Railtrack's Scottish division in an attempt to avoid up to three weeks of delays to services. It was due to last until 7am on Saturday morning, affecting at least 50 mainline services to Scotland. Virgin said that it was "particularly upset over the lack of advance warning to passengers".

Across the rest of Britain, the number of speed restrictions was almost doubled from the 85 announced last week to 150,forcing further cancellations and leaving many mainline and commuter services limited to travelling at 20mph.