Rail journeys in a shambles as West Coast line shuts down

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The Independent Online

At Euston, Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes yesterday, Britain's already weary rail passengers experienced the first of many days of travel misery to come.

At Euston, Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes yesterday, Britain's already weary rail passengers experienced the first of many days of travel misery to come.

On the first of the 18 weekends over which the West Coast Main Line, Britain's busiest train route, shuts down for engineering work, among the dejected hordes were football fans heading for the first game of the season, and unwitting travellers on journeys to relatives. They never knew Britain's train system could be so hopeless.

At Euston, travellers beginning their journey yesterday morning were annoyed by the disruption the delays were making to their plans.

Angela Callan, 26, from south London is a Tranmere Rovers season-ticket holder; she was looking forward to watching her team play its first match yesterday.

"I'm really annoyed by all the delays and it has already made me think twice about attending all of this season's matches. I had to leave home at 7am for a 3pm kick-off."

At Hemel Hempstead, hundreds of passengers had to queue to be herded on to one to the special buses. Those travelling with dogs, and parents with prams, were told they would have to board one of the eight specially adapted vans and accompany their animals or buggies as far as Milton Keynes.

The Independent on Sunday tested the new arrangements by taking a small dog named Romeo cross-country on the 40-minute drive.

A special van was laid on – after our reporter and dog had endured a 45-minute wait. The journey time from Milton Keynes to London Euston was three hours. A weekday journey free from disruption should take 39 minutes.

Passengers booking tickets last week had been advised to allow an extra 90 minutes. But many of yesterday's passengers were not aware of the impending delays.

Marcus Woody, 25, and Lindsay Firth, 26, from Manchester could not believe that their journey home from London would take longer than their flight back from the United States.

"We're exhausted after landing at Gatwick at 6 o'clock this morning and just want to get home. We're annoyed because we've been away on holiday and had no idea this was happening. We missed our connection to Manchester by just two minutes."

Chris Marchington, 46, of Surrey, travelled to Manchester to see a Manchester United match. He and his sister drove from London to Milton Keynes to avoid using the replacement bus between Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes. When they arrived at Milton Keynes, they found their train to Manchester's Piccadilly station was delayed by 15 minutes.

Mr Marchington said: "It's absolutely disgraceful. I have never seen so many Virgin staff trying to be so helpful. We were really lucky we drove part of the way.

"If people are trying to get back this morning they will be scuppered.

"All the coaches at Milton Keynes made it seem like the Third World. There were about 20 to 30 coaches."

His sister, Julie McDonald, also from the London area, said Railtrack's handling of the train lines was "disgusting".

"You can't get a train or get to a station without it being cancelled or delayed. My husband works in London and every day without fail there is a delay," she added.

Other passengers trying to reach London were left frustrated as they had been unaware of the proposed track closures.

Matthew First, 31, of London's Covent Garden, was trying to find an alternative to the 1.37pm Milton Keynes train, which meant he would be delayed for an hour in Manchester. He would then have to catch a bus to Hemel Hempstead, followed by another train to London Euston. "This is the first I have heard of it and I do not know what to say," he said.

"I am frustrated and I just want to get back."

Alan Weight, who was trying to reach Tottenham, north London, said Virgin should slash ticket prices because of the disruption to journeys.

"The price should be a lot cheaper considering you have got to get off the train at Milton Keynes and then get on a coach.

"Why pay full price when it's going to take longer?"

A spokeswoman for Silverlink said yesterday: "It will admittedly be a horrendous few months and customers are not happy with the changes but there is nothing else we can do.

"When you are travelling on a train you want to feel safe and the engineering work is absolutely necessary for the protection of our customers."

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