Network Rail boss in charge of Paddington main line to resign amid probe into chaos

Michelle Handforth, who flies to her Network Rail job from her home in Aberdeen, is to step down

Alastair Jamieson
Saturday 16 December 2023 14:47 GMT
Related video: Elizabeth Line passengers stuck on train 'with no heating' amid 'incident' near Paddington

The £300,000-a-year boss of one of Britain’s busiest railway lines has agreed to resign after a string of overhead power and track failures, including one that left thousands of passengers stranded on trains for hours.

Michelle Handforth, Network Rail managing director for the Wales & Western region from Paddington, is stepping down after the rail regulator launched an investigation into “poor punctuality” caused by repeated faults and emergency closures.

Ms Handforth, who lives in Aberdeen and commutes to her job, often by plane, told colleagues this week she had “taken the difficult decision to resign”.

Seven trains — four Elizabeth line, two Heathrow Express and a Great Western Railway intercity service — were stranded when high-voltage overhead power lines came crashing down at Ladbroke Grove, near Paddington, on 7 December. Passengers on the Elizabeth line commuter trains, which have no toilets, were forced to urinate on seats or the tracks in darkness. Among those stuck were musician James Blunt and presenter Rachel Riley.

Overhead power lines came down near Paddington on 7 December, causing major disruption
Overhead power lines came down near Paddington on 7 December, causing major disruption (PA)

It came after at least five other track faults, including a broken rail at Iver, near Slough, on 21 November caused cancellations and delays to services between London and Bristol, Wales and southwest England.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has launched an investigation into “performance issues” on the line. Feras Alshaker, its director of performance and planning, said Network Rail had improved elsewhere but the trunk route from Paddington “has continued to deteriorate, meaning poor reliability and punctuality for passengers and freight”.

Despite the chaos, Ms Handforth, 60, will continue to work her notice period, assigned to “special projects.” She joined Network Rail in August 2020, having previously been boss of Aberdeen Harbour Board.

In July, it emerged she claimed almost £10,000 in the last financial year for 72 flights in connection with her job, as her contract allowed her to claim travel and accommodation expenses. Network Rail spent a total of £188,006 on UK domestic flights for employees and another £315,026 on international plane trips over the same period, according to its annual report. Among Ms Handforth’s flights were two £536 return trips from Aberdeen to Bristol with Loganair.

It took up to four hours to evacuate stranded passengers to safety in the 7 December chaos at Ladbroke Grove
It took up to four hours to evacuate stranded passengers to safety in the 7 December chaos at Ladbroke Grove (PA Media)

Rob Cairns, who is currently Network Rail’s eastern regional capital delivery director, will take over in the interim from 1 January until a permanent successor can be found.

Network Rail confirmed Ms Handforth’s departure. Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive and one of the passengers caught up in the 7 December chaos, said: “I would like to thank Michelle for her hard work and support over these past three and a half years.”

In her message to colleagues this week, Ms Handforth said: “It’s been a real privilege to work with you all through the highs and lows of the past couple of years, and while this decision is a real wrench to me, I believe it is the right one for me, my family and the business.”

Crumbling infrastructure on the western main line from Paddington has been blamed for the unreliability of the £18bn new Elizabeth line, which finally opened in 2021. However, it has also repeatedly been crippled by software and door faults on its new trains.

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