Engineers brave freeze to repair stricken West Coast Main Line

Network Rail is accused of rushing upgrade work on Britain's busiest railway
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The Independent Online

Network Rail has been accused of ignoring warnings that it was rushing upgrade work to Britain's busiest railway after the latest in a series of faults on the line led to a sixth day of disruptions. Tens of thousands of rush-hour commuters were stranded at London's Euston station yesterday morning after another problem with overhead power cables closed the West Coast Main Line, which stretches from London to Glasgow.

Damage to power lines around Wembley, in north-west London, led to the immediate cancellation of all services from Euston until 10.10am yesterday. Several power failures have hit the line since the completion of a £9bn upgrade and the introduction of extra hourly services to Birmingham and Manchester last month.

Virgin Trains, which runs most services on the newly revamped line, pointed to warnings made last year that the deadline for the upgrades had been too ambitious, and that more testing was needed before moving to the improved timetable. It has been holding daily conference calls with Network Rail to voice its concerns, but has been frustrated by the lack of answers.

"We want to see the line succeed, but this has become greatly frustrating for us and our customers," a spokesman for the company said. "One understands that problems occur with rail infrastructure, but it is the repeated nature of these problems that are causing us concerns."

Last year, the company complained to the Office of Rail Regulation and the Government that Network Rail had adopted an "unrealistic timetable" in attempting to complete the upgrade by December. Sir Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Group, said last May that problems occurring on the line under the old timetable did not bode well for the future. "Our concern is that it could be even worse when the new, more frequent timetable comes into effect," he said.

He added that the speed at which the work was being completed made him "increasingly worried" about Network Rail's ability to "deliver an upgraded railway that is reliable and can be maintained".

The Virgin boss is said to be furious after seeing his dire warnings become reality. Virgin was reduced to running four services an hour from Euston station for much of yesterday afternoon, when only two of the four lines returned to operation. London Midland also ran four services an hour instead of its usual six.

Last night, Network Rail engineers were braving sub-zero temperatures and working through the night in an attempt to repair the damage in time for a return to a full service this morning. A series of disruptions have hit the line over the past week. On Friday, a light aircraft crashed into overhead power lines in Staffordshire, causing delays to services over the weekend. Power lines came down near Watford Junction, in Hertfordshire, on Sunday evening, causing chaos for rush-hour commuters on Monday morning. Other problems with overhead cables were also detected in Rugby, in the West Midlands, and at Bletchley, in Buckinghamshire.

Network Rail had described the series of disruptions an unfortunate coincidence. But it has now conceded it was "incredibly rare" for such a high number of incidents so close together, and has launched an overarching investigation to see if there are any common links. All overhead cabling along the track is being checked, and test trains are being run.

Network Rail also faces a parliamentary investigation into the delays. The Commons Transport Select Committee is poised to begin its own inquiry into the line's problems if disruptions persist beyond this week. "There are many people trying to find out what has gone wrong on the line, but they have got to find out quickly, put it right and give passengers the reliable, fast railway that the taxpayer has paid for," said Carlisle MP Eric Martlew, a member of the committee.

A Network Rail spokesman said: "We believe our maintenance regime is robust. We obviously apologise to customers affected. We are working day and night to sort out the problems."