Fifteen-hour nightmare on Virgin train

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Virgin trains ran into fresh controversy yesterday after passengers suffered a 15-hour journey following the breakdown of an ageing locomotive.

Virgin trains ran into fresh controversy yesterday after passengers suffered a 15-hour journey following the breakdown of an ageing locomotive.

The train's engine was due to be replaced within the next two years because it had such a poor reliability record, it has been admitted at the end of a another dismal week for Britain's rail network.

Signal failures meant the 6.20am Edinburgh to Southampton service was already running almost four hours late when the engine broke down as it approached Oxford. It eventually reached the south coast at 10pm on Friday, nearly six hours later than its scheduled arrival time.

"The majority of the delays were infrastructure problems which were beyond our control," said a spokesman for Virgin. "The problem was that we then had an engine failure on a train which had already been delayed very seriously.

"The 35-year-old Class 47 locomotive is one which we are going to replace because of their age and unreliability. They are due to be phased out relatively soon. The first of the replacement trains will be coming into service in May and they should all be phased in by the end of 2002."

But these incidents on Virgin Trains are by no means isolated ones, as Passenger Power reader Junella McKay from Paisley wrote to us last week.

If you go by GNER there are no trains direct from Glasgow; you'll need to start at Queen Street and they are still running a reduced service to Edinburgh because of the landslide at Polmont. Oh, and yes, in Yorkshire you'll have to travel by bus for part of the journey.

Virgin's hitherto spurned West Coast route suddenly sounds highly desirable. But, wait. "There are no direct trains to London; you have to change at Crewe. The entire journey will take about seven hours. No, we aren't taking seat bookings. Nobody is travelling these days; there will be plenty of space.''

Today the ratio of 2:1, that is six first-class passengers to three buffet staff, ensures that we are plied endlessly with complimentary refreshments of every sort by a staff bored out of its mind.

We are promised a Crewe ETA of 4pm. About this time and just short of our destination we stop. The informative but somewhat illiterate conductor warns of an unknown problem. "Me and the driver,'' he announces, "are just going to leave the train and get down to see what the problem is.'' I envisage a body on the line but, after banging a few wheel axles, they are back on board and we chug gently into Crewe at 4.25 - the time that our connecting London train should be leaving.

One-and-a-half hours later and after several platform changes and revised ETAs, our train arrives. We stand on the packed platform and wonder how we will all fit, only to discover the train started in Liverpool and already carries two trainloads of passengers.

With a callous disregard for my fellow man I make my way to the first-class section, but my optimism is short-lived. A large and lively party of teachers is engaged in one of those all-in packaged London weekends. Unsuspectingly I squeeze into the one empty seat within the group. As they pass round the vodka the stories become more scandalous, and the laughter reaches higher decibels.

Apart from the driver, this train seems to be travelling entirely without the benefit of staff. There are no announcements, no ticket collections and no refreshments - not that this worries the teachers.

A businessman eventually asks the noisy teachers if they do hold first-class tickets. Their anarchic response sends my head dipping deeper into the anonymity of my book as they loudly discuss the relative merits or otherwise of first-class passengers. I comfort myself that I in no way resemble one. Still, they must be wondering.

We meander on through Stafford, and Rugby, Milton Keynes and Watford with no announcements to tell of our slow progress, until finally we chug gently into a very busy terminus. I dash for a taxi and finally arrive at my destination 12 exhausting hours after leaving home. What, I wonder, will the return journey hold in store?

Six days later I rise at 6am in order to catch the 8.13 out of Euston which I have been told will arrive in Birmingham at 10.15 in time for me to pick up the 10.35 to Edinburgh where I have to change for Glasgow.

This time we have a conductor and he announces that we will arrive in Birmingham at 10.30. I murmur my information about the 10.35 connection. He puts his head back and roars "not a chance". I search for any reference to an Edinburgh train within the next week, and finally succumb to the charms of the information desk staff. No need to go to Edinburgh, I'm told. "Take the 11.04 to Carlisle, and wait there 50 minutes to pick up a Glasgow train. And in case you miss that Glasgow train, there is another one-and-a-half hours hours later,'' she adds in a voice that betrays her certainty that I will be on the later train.

She is right. I am on the later train which, of course, is also late. I board my final train to Glasgow only to be informed that the boiler is faulty and there is no hot water. Eventually I reach Glasgow, having travelled this time for 11-and-a-half hours from door to door.

I have already sent in my apologies for the next London meeting in two weeks' time.