'Rushed work' fear as Euston delays continue

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Concern mounted today over problems that have dogged the West Coast line since a major upgrade was completed last month.

Passengers suffered a sixth successive day of travel chaos today on a main London to Scotland rail line on which a £9 billion upgrade has just been completed.

Overhead cable problems - the latest setback to hit the West Coast Main Line - meant neither Virgin Trains nor London Midland could run any services in or out of Euston station in London during the morning rush-hour.

In freezing conditions, passengers had to be taken by bus to London from the Midlands, with journeys taking up to 90 minutes longer than normal.

London Overground, which operates suburban services out of Euston, was able to run trains in the morning rush-hour but many passengers travelling further afield arrived at Euston to be greeted by empty departure boards.

Virgin and London Midland did manage to begin Euston services around mid-morning but both companies were running a reduced number of trains.

Virgin called on Network Rail (NR) to check whether there was "an underlying issue" with the power supply, while the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) estimated that the disruption on the line had cost business around £38 million over the last three days.

The BCC also said it thought the recent disruptions had occurred because the West Coast upgrade had been "rushed" so it could be completed by the end of 2008.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said: "This will feel like deja vu to many customers on the West Coast line. We must get to the bottom of the cause of any delays or accidents to ensure no deeper problems develop.

"If there is any truth in the claim that disruptions have been caused by rushed work by Network Rail this would be a serious problem. Rail passengers need to be assured that the work NR did well to complete by the December 2008 deadline has been done to the highest possible standard."

The latest problem on the line started last night when there was an overhead cable failure near Wembley in north west London.

This followed overhead cable problems at Bletchley in Buckinghamshire and at Rugby in Warwickshire which had hit services yesterday.

Before that, West Coast services on Sunday and Monday had been affected by overhead cable problems at Watford in Hertfordshire and the line had been shut for a period after a light plane had crashed close to the tracks near Stafford on Friday in an accident which claimed three lives.

A Virgin Trains' spokesman said: "The Bletchley, Watford and Wembley incidents were in a comparatively local area.

"We need NR to find out the cause of this and to correct it and also to see whether there is an underlying issue here."

BCC director general David Frost said: "There is no excuse for the huge amount of chaos this rushed upgrade to the West Coast line has caused travellers.

"Businesses have lost a staggering £38 million in just three days because NR have again failed to adequately deliver.

"NR must ensure that there is a rapid and effective improvement in the reliability of the network. The BCC questioned NR's decision to bring forward the deadline of the West Coast upgrade last year.

"We believe the recent disruptions have occurred because this vital project was rushed."

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Norman Baker said: "Natural events do occur, but NR needs to build more resilience into the network.

"It seems that if there's a light dusting of snow within 40 miles of a rail line something will go wrong.

"I have travelled from Stockholm to the Arctic Circle on a train that arrived five minutes early, yet Britain lapses into chaos at the first hint of snow."

One of those arriving at Euston to find her travel plans in ruins was human resources worker Joanne Brown, 40, from Beckenham, south east London, who was booked on the 9.03am Virgin service to Birmingham New Street for an 11am business meeting.

She said: "I'm fed up. We pay a lot of money to travel. If I'd known yesterday, I would have driven up there."

NR said: "At around 9pm on Tuesday night the overhead power lines on the West Coast Main Line were severely damaged in the Wembley area. All four lines were affected. Network Rail staff have been working to rectify the situation and a limited service will run today.

"Our specialists will work throughout the day and night to repair the infrastructure with the aim of a full service tomorrow morning. Passengers are advised to check with train operators or national rail enquiries before travelling. Network Rail apologises to anyone whose journeys have been disrupted."

This is the second new year running that rail passengers have had to endure long hold-ups.

Last year three major engineering projects - including one on the West Coast line at Rugby - overran, resulting in travel chaos. NR was later fined a record £14 million by the Office of Rail Regulation.

Michael Lee, director of access planning and performance for the Office of Rail Regulation, said: "We sympathise totally with passengers who have suffered disruption over the last few days, and expect Network Rail to resolve these problems as quickly as possible.

"We are taking this disruption very seriously indeed. NR is carrying out an investigation, and we are closely monitoring what it is doing to get things working again.

"It is too early to draw any conclusions about what has gone wrong, but rest assured we will be expecting answers quickly and will consider the need for further action in the light of those answers."

Gerry Doherty, leader of the TSSA rail union, said: "This is the second year running that travellers have had to face new year chaos on the West Coast line despite assurances from NR that the much-delayed upgrade work had finally been finished.

"Passengers should be given full refunds for the past three days and NR should explain why passengers are suffering these shambolic breakdowns after £10 billion of taxpayers' money has been spent on this upgrade.

"Given the high cost of fares, passengers are entitled to a fully-operational, seven-days-a-week railway - not a part-time service at new year and bank holidays."