Virgin boss admits trains are 'hot and smelly'

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The Independent Online

Passengers on Sir Richard Branson's tilting trains are facing hot, smelly and "uncomfortable" journeys, according to the managing director of Virgin Trains, Charles Belcher.

Passengers on Sir Richard Branson's tilting trains are facing hot, smelly and "uncomfortable" journeys, according to the managing director of Virgin Trains, Charles Belcher.

An internal memo from Mr Belcher warns that travellers on some of the new Pendolino services between London and Scotland will have to put up with pungent lavatories and an eccentric air-conditioning system that is prone to blowing warm air at passengers when temperatures rise.

This winter, the bizarre mechanism often switched heating off when temperatures dipped below zero and refused to come back on until the coach had warmed up, the note reveals.

The Pendolino trains have been hit by problems since the 125mph service was introduced amid much fanfare last September. The following month, the first in a series of mishaps occurred when a train hit a buffer at Lime Street Station in Liverpool. Several passengers were injured.

A 110mph limit was subsequently imposed on the London-to-Glasgow west coast main line after a warning from the Health and Safety Executive. The company also met Tony McNulty, a Transport minister, last February to discuss concerns about the trains.

The memo sets out a range of problems afflicting the Pendolino toilets and a timetable for fixing them over the next two months.

Toilets were often locked when sensors incorrectly showed waste tanks full. At the depot, sometimes the waste tanks were not emptied. The supplier of the equipment took "many weeks" to complete repairs.

Among the other problems are: spillages from incorrectly installed pipe-work; depot staff not properly trained and customers blocking the toilets by flushing rubbish down them. Doors have tended to jam on their runners.

Mr Belcher's memo said: "Many key components within the system failed, in particular the sensors that monitor the exterior ambient temperature, controlling the temperature in each vehicle. The defects caused the system to increase the heat, wrongly thinking the temperature was low."

Mr Belcher insists many of the problems have been solved and the rest should be dealt with by the end of this month. However, he warns: "There may be some uncomfortable journeys if there is warm weather before then."

The managing director points out punctuality and reliability have improved after initial problems. More than 82 per cent of trains are arriving on time and more than 97 per cent of scheduled services are running. He said there was no room for complacency, but revenue was growing at 20 per cent and the volume of complaints were half those at the same time last year.

A spokesman for Virgin said toilets on half the fleet were in good working order and the rest should be fixed by the end of June. Most of the air-conditioning problems would be dealt with by the end of this month .

"We felt it right to tell the staff a timetable had been set for putting things right so they could give explanations to the passengers."

* Last year was the worst for rail staff deaths since 1991, a report from the Rail Safety and Standards Board revealed yesterday. A total of eight track workers were killed in 2004. The year was also marred by the November 2004 Berkshire level-crossing crash at Ufton Nervet in which seven people, including six train passengers, died, the report said. The rail workforce death toll in 2003 was three, while in 1991 it was 12.

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