How passengers became prisoners

Commuter survival: in today's overcrowded coaches, an oxygen mask and food are as useful as briefcase and brolly
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The Independent Online

The briefcase and the rolled-up umbrella, traditional kit for any self-respecting commuter, have been joined by the oxygen mask.

The briefcase and the rolled-up umbrella, traditional kit for any self-respecting commuter, have been joined by the oxygen mask.

Last week, a bad one for the London Tube, saw more than 2,100 passengers trapped underground in the heat and darkness of jam-packed Central Line trains for two terrifying hours. Information was in short supply, as was fresh air.

When paramedics finally reached them, three people were stretchered off to hospital, 13 were treated for the effects of heat, and dozens more required oxygen masks to overcome breathing difficulties developed in the crush of bodies.

You don't have to travel underground to suffer frightening levels of overcrowding, an insulting lack of information, or to see rail companies flounder when something goes wrong - as readers have made all too clear to our Passenger Power campaign. All it took in the case of the Central Line was a broken fuse.

Steve Cray, a journalist from Portsmouth, spent four hours in complete darkness along with 200 other passengers when his home-bound train ground to a halt in a shower of blue flashes last Saturday night.

Railtrack and South West Trains are still investigating what crippled the 8.20pm from Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour, leaving it stranded outside Witley just past Guildford in Surrey.

"At a quarter to ten, a guard walked through the train saying that a diesel would arrive in the next 20 minutes or so. It didn't, and that was the last we heard from him, or any other rail official, for the rest of the night," said Mr Cray.

The situation was not just frustrating, it was dangerous. It soon became clear that some passengers were injured and that others were severely stressed. One woman was having difficulty breathing and other passengers thought she was suffering a heart attack. Someone else fell, injuring his head. A father walked through the carriages asking whether anyone had anything he could feed to his baby.

By midnight, owing to the lack of help or information, passengers were driven to call 999 on their mobile phones and the police said they would dispatch paramedics.

But things only got worse. "At 12.45am we could hear an diesel approach but, without any warning, and still in pitch darkness, it jolted the four carriages of our train," said Mr Cray. "We thought we'd been hit from behind. One teenager, who had already been experiencing breathing difficulties, passed out altogether."

Eventually, the rescue engine pushed them into Haslemere station at 1.35am where lights were restored and it continued to Portsmouth Harbour under its own power, arriving at 2.55am, nearly seven hours after leaving Waterloo.

South West Trains have promised to investigate, and Mr Cray awaits the answers with interest.

He wants to know why he was left in darkness and without information for nearly four hours; why no paramedics were dispatched until after passengers had called the police themselves; why no attempt was made to provide refreshments; and why it took three hours for a rescue engine to reach the stricken train.

South West Trains spokeswoman Jo Barnett apologised for the ordeal and said individual passengers' claims for compensation would be investigated. She admitted that "procedures" had been put in place late. "There are two things we are going to look at specifically," she said. "How we handle the recovery of immobilised trains and how we can better cope with our passengers if a similar situation occurs in future.

"We will also be writing into our procedures the need for communication with passen-gers when trains are coupled."

As last week's report from the Rail Passenger Council said, "Four years after the start of privatisation and after all the time, effort, money and promises, we still have a system performing no better than when the process started."

In respect of overcrowding, things may even be getting worse. Last year saw another 6 per cent growth in passenger numbers on a system that is already creaking. There is no legal limit to the number of travellers that train and Tube companies can cram on board.

Overcrowding on the South West Trains service between Winchester and Waterloo is now so severe that even a first class ticket does not guarantee a seat. The troubled Connex company has been fined £1m for running trains with too few carriages on its south-eastern franchise.

Surprisingly, the Government's Health and Safety Executive has concluded that packed trains are no more dangerous than less crowded ones and points instead to overcrowded platforms as the potential killers. Last week thousands of angry travellers were evacuated from Baker Street station in central London to alleviate the huge crowds.

The Government's Shadow Strategic Rail Authority accepts that overcrowding needs to be tackled. "We recognise that it's a major concern," said a spokesman. "The system can't carry on as it is."

But passengers have taken little comfort from its efforts so far. According to the National Audit Office, the Government's spending watchdog, the SSRA's figures on overcrowding are inadequate and probably inaccurate.

Meanwhile, there are no clear targets for improvement, on either underground or overground railways.

The statutory Rail Passengers Council wants a national plan of action which would link the Government's investment in the system to more humane travelling conditions. And it wants an immediate end to the scandal of rush hour trains that either fail to appear or, when they do, are missing half their carriages.


Passengers should contact South West Trains at: Customer Relations, South West Trains Ltd., Friars Bridge Court, 41-45 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8NZ.