Leaves derail train carrying 200

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The Independent Online

The rail industry has agreed to implement a "national recovery plan" to end the chaos affecting the network, hours after commuters escaped largely unscathed when their train was derailed yesterday.

The rail industry has agreed to implement a "national recovery plan" to end the chaos affecting the network, hours after commuters escaped largely unscathed when their train was derailed yesterday.

The second disaster in nine days was averted after a commuter service, the 8.21am South West Trains service from Weybridge in Surrey to Staines, slid off the points at Virginia Waters station after skidding on leaves. It passed through a red signal, leaving four carriages, which remained upright, in the path of a train from Reading to Waterloo. That service was halted after the derailed train's driver alerted a signalman.

The commuters, thought to be up to 200, were shaken but unhurt. Two passengers were treated for shock. It was the second recent accident on that stretch of line: 10 days ago a train hit a bus on a level crossing at Pooley Green, near Egham. No one was injured.

After yesterday's accident Martin Groves, an RCA Records production manager, broke down in tears when he was taken off the train. He said it was "the most terrifying experience of my life". He added: "I was reading my paper when there was a jolt ... The carriage started to tilt and I just said to people 'hold on, hold on'."

The near-disaster highlighted the chaos on the rail network. The speed curbs introduced by Railtrack for emergency inspections crept up from the 165 announced on Wednesday to 206, four times the number introduced after last week's crash at Hatfield, which claimed four lives. Engineers have found 1,850 rails with the hairline cracks blamed for the Hatfield crash.

Railtrack said in the "worst case" the restrictions could increase to 300 over the next few days. It confirmed the inspections "blitz" was likely to last until Wednesday and predicted that the delays and cancellations of services were likely to get worse. The situation is unlikely to improve until later next week.

The warnings came as John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, yesterday held a crisis meeting in London with executives from Railtrack, the 25 train companies, freight operators, Tom Winsor, the rail regulator, and Sir Alastair Morton of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority. Mr Prescott said the "robust" track recovery plan would in two weeks set out a timetable for dealing with the crisis caused by the fracturing of tracks. Speed restrictions were likely to remain in force for several weeks but the taskforce would meet again on Thursday to review progress.

He added that after the uproar provoked by Railtrack's sudden closure of the West Coast mainline in Scotland on Tuesday it had promised to give operators and passengers at least 24 hours' notice of any more closures.

The patience of passengers was "being stretched to the limits", Mr Prescott said. "The public wants to be satisfied the rail industry is working together and is doing everything possible to address the safety issues raised by the tragic accident at Hatfield."

Gerald Corbett, Railtrack's chief executive, said the "truly ghastly" Hatfield disaster had shocked the industry more than the Ladbroke Grove crash last year. "The positive thing that has come out of it is the industry coming together and that's very positive. Looking back at Ladbroke Grove, that did not happen."

Sir Alastair said yesterday's crisis meeting had also agreed to develop a comprehensive national emergency timetable and critically re-examine its own structures.

Bernard Jenkin, the Tories' transport spokesman, dismissed Mr Prescott's attempts to reassure passengers as another "lecture." The Deputy Prime Minister had overseen Britain's railways since May 1997 and they were "now a complete shambles", he said."The last thing the railway needs is more lectures from politicians about how to run trains on time, least of all from John Prescott."

Meanwhile, services in northern England and Scotland still suffered severe disruption yesterday, despite the lifting of the West Coast line closure yesterday morning. Nearly all the train operators reported serious problems. The Royal Mail said the delays were causing immense problems for deliveries, affecting millions of letters.

Railtrack said fracturing problems, known as "gauge corner cracking", had been found at 20 sites on the West Coast line, leading to nine 20mph speed restrictions between Glasgow and Gretna. ScotRail was able to resume its cancelled sleeper services to and from London but said they would not arrive until nearly noon, up to four hours late.

Virgin cancelled nearly 50 long-distance services from London, affecting Manchester, Birmingham and Blackpool trains hardest. A spokesman said: "We're in an extremely difficult situation which is causing massive disruption."

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