Thousands stranded by rail firm's safety alert

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For Michael Davies, who is paid £125,000 a year as part-time chairman of National Express Group, yesterday was a good news day. Profits were up 11 per cent, rail passenger numbers had risen 5 per cent and he was "pleased with our performance".

But for thousands of commuters waiting on platforms from Milton Keynes to Watford for trains run by Silverlink, part of Mr Davies's international transport company, the polished words and bumper figures were a slap in the face on a day of travelling hell.

While National Express executives were briefing City analysts on their half-yearly performance yesterday morning, some 10,000 of their customers were left stranded after Silverlink withdrew an entire fleet of trains and suspended all services between Birmingham New Street and London Euston at 6.30am.

The rail company said a routine inspection at its depot in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, had forced it to immobilise all 37 of its Class 321 trains after engineers discovered a potential fault with braking equipment, possibly caused by maintenance work. Silverlink staff were posted to inform commuters arriving at stations in the rush hour that they would have to use an emergency buses or switch to other rail companies, such as Virgin and Thameslink, if possible.

Suzanne May, chairwoman of the London Transport Users Committee, said: "This is dreadful news. Silverlink passengers will suffer major loss and inconvenience. The railway is a vital link in our daily lives and its sudden absence will be a cruel blow."

Last night, nearly all Silverlink services remained suspended, severing rail links to towns such as Hemel Hempstead and Northampton, and forcing passengers to seek alternative routes or take to the roads.

The company said it was running a makeshift hourly shuttle service between Watford and Milton Keynes using a diesel locomotive but admitted it would not be running a full service before the weekend, leaving passengers to rely on coaches or additional stops by Virgin services.

Commuters were warned to expect lengthy delays, with a typical journey from Leighton Buzzard to Euston, normally taking 45 minutes, lasting up to four hours.

A Silverlink spokesman said that there would be "major disruption" to its network but said safety was paramount. "We're waiting for technical detail and opinion before we can find out how and when we can get our trains into service. The fault was found on several of the trains' brakes. We took the entire fleet out as a precaution. Safety is our main concern."

He added: "From Northampton, Watford and Milton Keynes to London, we take the vast majority of commuters."

The timing for Silverlink's parent company, which will lose a six-figure sum for every day that the service is suspended, could not have been worse.

National Express Group, which has expanded from being a coach company to become Britain's largest train operator, confirmed it was negotiating an extension to its Silverlink and Wessex franchises and part of its West Anglia and Great Northern network. It is also bidding for the Greater Anglia and ScotRail franchises.

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