Few trains these days have names, but the 5.45pm each Friday night from Paddington to Swansea deserves to be called The Great Escape. It is packed with commuters heading home from work, augmented by Londoners escaping the capital to weekend hideaways from Gloucestershire to the Gower. Except last Friday night, that is. At the height of the bank holiday weekend getaway, seven miles and seven minutes outside London, the emergency brakes went on and stayed on. More than 500 passengers stopped escaping and began several hours of incarceration.
Apologetic staff walked through the train. They explained what had gone wrong, and what was being done to fix it. They dispensed bottles of water, advised about onward connections and handed out forms so passengers could claim the stipulated compensation for stewing in west London rather than strolling in west Wales.
Did they heck.
As the delay slowly erased a perfect summer evening, the train staff were nowhere to be seen. During the hiatus, only two accurate announcements were made, both by the lady in the buffet. About 80 minutes into the standstill, she said: "We have run out of all alcohol except Arkell's Bitter and spirits." (Clearly the Friday night crowd has a thirst for lager, cider and wine.) And two hours after the sudden halt: "We have run out of sandwiches and hot food" – whereupon some of the hungrier passengers started gastronomically evaluating other travellers in case the need arose for Andes‑style improvised dining.
'Never apologise, never explain'
An InterCity train blocking the main line west from London on one of the busiest days of the year is a problem best tackled swiftly. The solution was close at hand: to borrow a locomotive from the Old Oak Common depot just three miles away and hook it up to the afflicted train so the obstruction could be moved and its passengers liberated. But for two hours nothing happened, except that the stricken train became something of a museum piece. Every now and again, a westbound train hurried past on the slow line, its passengers smugly aware that by choosing to travel later than 5.45pm they would arrive at their destination much earlier.
By now, life on board was turning feral, with First Great Western seemingly adopting the corporate motto "Never apologise, never explain".
In the absence of accurate on-board information on anything other than the stock levels at the buffet, some passengers tried phoning National Rail Enquiries. A waste of time and money: staff in the call centre told them the stranded 5.45pm had been cancelled and they should travel instead on the 6.15pm, which had long ago whizzed past the window.
In these modern times, the traveller turns to Twitter to try to find out what is going on. Amelia Walker tweeted: "The longer this train is delayed, the drunker I'm going to get." Not with the buffet running dry, you're not, Amelia.
As trains heading into London became embroiled in the farce, MellyM found herself stationary at a station and tweeted: "It's bad enough I'm always late for work because of your services, but tonight you're making me late for Beyoncé. I hate you, FGW."
Even more poignantly, Mark Sugden mourned: "You and your faulty trains are ruining my honeymoon before it's even begun."
First Great Western comes a dismal last
At the time the train was due to be departing west from Bridgend towards Swansea, it finally started moving east towards Ealing Broadway. The plan was that trains would be stopped at this suburban station to pick up the stranded passengers. "There will be a duty manager available to answer your questions," was a promise that proved as empty as the buffet.
Three trains whooshed past without stopping, before one finally paused for the lost souls. Then the fun started. Two peak-time trains into one don't really go, particularly if a carriage on the replacement train is marked "Vehicle is not in use" because of a power failure. With even standing room running out, some rebellious passengers snuck into the darkened, empty carriage and sat down – until the train manager threatened to call the police if they did not leave.
Sue Evans, the director of communications for First Great Western, later told me: "I'm really sorry our customers were delayed on Friday evening. We should have got everyone moving more quickly. Failures of this kind are rare. We got some engineers out straightaway, as they initially believed they could find and fix the problem. After an hour they found they couldn't, and we sent the rescue locomotive."
Travellers understand that things often go wrong in unexpected ways. What counts is how the organisation responds. On this occasion, the train operator failed its passengers dismally. Last word to William Davies, who tweeted: "First Great Western trains are the worst form of transport known to mankind #better off walking."