Taking the train today? Forget it

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The Independent Online

If you're hoping to catch a train today, think again. Railtrack is carrying out the biggest programme of track renewal in a century - and the delays, cancellations, diversions, and replacement bus services have become so confusing that even railway operators themselves are now warning passengers to stay away.

If you're hoping to catch a train today, think again. Railtrack is carrying out the biggest programme of track renewal in a century - and the delays, cancellations, diversions, and replacement bus services have become so confusing that even railway operators themselves are now warning passengers to stay away.

"I would suggest people do not travel at all," said Kevin Johnson of Midland Mainline yesterday. "It has been bad during the week and we have been told the disruption is going to last for at least two weeks."

At stations across Britain signs have gone up advising passengers to seek other forms of transport as 20,000 Railtrack workers seek to lay 25 miles of track this weekend. Speed restrictions have been applied to 300 lines, causing long delays. The situation is not expected to improve until 10 November at the earliest.

The situation has been made worse this weekend by other maintenance work scheduled before the derailment near Hatfield 12 days ago, in which four people died.

Commuters fought each other for the right to join packed trains out of Waterloo on Friday night. Tension was expected to increase over the weekend as other passengers not so familiar with the inadequacies of the modern rail network journeyed across country to visit friends and relatives, attend sporting events, or go on shopping expeditions.

The passenger revolution is still far off, however. Yesterday there were murmurs of dissent and sighs of despair at Waterloo, Europe's largest terminus, but nobody rushed the ticket barriers demanding justice, liberty, and a place on the 10.30 to Surbiton.

Instead the usual stoic British response to a crisis was in evidence. Some people even blamed themselves. "It's my own fault," said Bill Gillespie, who was trying to get to Reading for a football match.

"I should have made more efforts to check before I left home. But every time I called rail enquiries I got a message saying they were busy because of all these bloody delays, so ring back later. I just gave up."

All services to Reading from Waterloo had been cancelled because of the derailment at Virginia Water two days previously - so Mr Gillespie would have to get a train bound for Windsor, change at Staines, take the replacement bus service to Ascot, then another train on to Reading.

The alternative was to go to Paddington but none of the many passenger advisers in fluorescent waistcoats could promise that services there were running properly.

Kay Hambledon was waiting for her cousin to arrive from Sherborne in Dorset on a train that should have got in at 10.40am. The board said it had "terminated" and passengers would arrive, by some unspecified means, more than two hours late, at 12.53.

"I just don't know what's going on," she said. The passenger advisers couldn't help. "I think they've changed trains," said one. "I can't really say though, to be honest. It's probably something to do with these restrictions."

There were posters all around the station warning of delays. Services to the west of England would be starting from Basingstoke, said one. Engineering work near Clapham Junction, the country's busiest station, meant diversions and buses.

On top of everything else, a poster warned that a revised timetable had just come into operation because of leaf fall. This sounded "like a poor excuse" but was "the equivalent of black ice on the roads".

Yet another poster, in red ink, warned that families would not be able to let the train take the strain on their way to Chessington World of Adventures because the route was shut. They should seek "an alternative means of transport".

A Railtrack sign suggested services from Waterloo would be, on average, two minutes late. Trains from Portsmouth and other stations on the south coast were arriving about half an hour behind the scheduled time, which had itself been adjusted. "It seems churlish to complain," said a suited man arriving from Hampshire for a wedding. "People died."

His companion was less forgiving. "They say they can't run safely and on time. That's their job though, isn't it? The thing they're paid for?"

Overall, however, passengers at mainline stations seemed resigned to the situation, as though they had brought their suffering on themselves by daring to buy tickets. Those waiting for the 1.15pm from Paddington to Weston-super-Mare were told that it had been cancelled, because of the disruption caused by the speed limits.

Asked what time the next train was, an adviser behind glass in the First Great Western booth said the best thing was to board the 1.45pm to Bristol and catch a connecting train. She could not say what time the connection might be, or even be sure that it existed.

A few feet away, a frustrated passenger was asking about his return journey. When he had gone off, spluttering, the adviser said out of the corner of her mouth: "Never mind tomorrow. We don't even know what's going on today."

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