Hundreds left waiting for trains that never arrive

Rail chaos: Passengers forced to sleep in stations in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh after Railtrack's decision to shut the West Coast main line

Severin Carrell
Thursday 22 September 2011 08:54

As the chaos gripping the rail network began, one passenger was standing contentedly on the platform of Britain's most isolated railway station, waiting for a train which would never reach its destination.

As the chaos gripping the rail network began, one passenger was standing contentedly on the platform of Britain's most isolated railway station, waiting for a train which would never reach its destination.

Standing alone at Rannoch station, a tiny landmark on a vast, desolate moor high in the Grampian mountains south of Fort William, he was looking forward to catching Tuesday's overnight sleeper for London.

It was due to draw up at 9pm. As he waited, officials from the train operator ScotRail were frantically trying to contact the tiny, unmanned station to warn him the service had been cancelled after Railtrack that evening suddenly decided to close down the West Coast mainline. They failed.

He boarded the sleeper, to discover that a train due to arrive at Euston at 7.50am would pull in to Glasgow Central, where he and 19 other passengers were left sleeping on a stationary train at the platform. Another 120 people travelling from Inverness and Aberdeen were left stranded on the East Coast sleeper at Edinburgh Waverley. And at Euston, another 160 people were forced to spend the night sleeping on the two sleepers destined for Scotland.

Railtrack's decision left Alistair McPherson, ScotRail's managing director, "enraged". ScotRail officials said that during Tuesday, they had been discussing plans with Railtrack for a 20-mile speed restriction on the 50-mile stretch, to start at 8am the next morning, while the rails were checked for defects.

Jeanette Anderson, director of Railtrack Scotland, said the measure was intended to avoid a drawn-out inspection lasting two to three weeks, with 20mph speed restrictions and extended delays for passengers. But, faced with furious passengers, she was forced to "unreservedly apologise" yesterday. "Our priority is to reopen the West Coast line safely as soon as we are physically able to do so."

The experience of ScotRail and Virgin passengers was mirrored by chaotic scenes throughout Britain. Nearly all the 25 train companies announced major delays, cancellations, timetabling alterations and rerouting of trains due to Railtrack's decision to impose speed restrictions on 150 stretches of track after last week's derailment at Hatfield, Hertfordshire.

Gatwick Express train speeds were cut by 33 per cent, Great Western services between Totnes, Devon, and Plymouth were cut to 20mph, with Virgin Crosscountry trains travelling at 10mph in stretches. Commuters across south-east England were also hit by long delays and cancellations.

On the East Coast line, GNER's reputation as one of Britain's most efficient operators was hit as journey times to the north-east and Scotland increased by an hour, with services cut by 25 per cent.

The crisis leaves a big question-mark over the speed with which the rail service will return to normal. Some train operators believe the chaos on the West Coast line could mean services will remain affected until mid-November, but it now appears the disruption will last the rest of the year.

Earlier yesterday, Gerald Corbett, Railtrack's chief executive, had warned of a "blitz" on safety, suggesting that other snap closures would follow.

But yesterday's backlash will make Railtrack more cautious in future. Although major rail companies such as Virgin and ScotRail said they understood the logic of Railtrack's decision, other smaller companies or those less affected by the safety crisis were resisting plans for line closures.

They argues that moderate disruption, although longer in duration, is more easily managed and less likely to anger passengers. What still remained unclear was how long Mr Corbett's "blitz" would take.

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