Holiday trains misery
Thousands of rail users set to be hit as two of the country’s busiest stations close on December 24
By Richard Marsden
TWO of Britain’s biggest rail stations will be shut on Christmas Eve – one of the most hectic travel days of the year as passengers dash home to spend the festive break with family and friends.
King’s Cross and Paddington in London will be brought to a standstill by engineering works, affecting thousands heading for Yorkshire, the North East, Scotland, the West Country and South Wales.
It will also mean that diversion routes are likely to be very busy.
The works are part of at least 20 major schemes being carried out across the country during the festive period.
King’s Cross and Paddington typically handle more than 100,000 arrivals and departures each day.
Paddington Station is also due to be closed on December 27 as work continues for the HS2 line at Old Oak Common in West London and new track is laid at West Drayton, near Heathrow.
The disruption follows good news for hard-pressed passengers after a deal was finally struck between rail companies and the RMT union, removing the threat of strikes which had blighted last year’s festive period. Drivers’ union Aslef, which is still in dispute with rail firms, has already held a week of strikes, the last day of which was on Friday.
Network Rail stressed that the work during the Christmas and the New Year break is ‘slimmed down’ compared with previous years, and that 96 per cent of the network will be open for ‘business as usual’.
It added that most of the work will take place during the traditional Christmas Day and Boxing Day shutdown. But diversions will mean longer journeys or replacement bus services on a slew of routes on several days before and after that.
Tory MP Karl McCartney, a member of the Transport Select Committee, said: ‘This news will be very disappointing for the many who need to travel to stay with their families for this special time of the year. It will lead to packed trains and a very uncomfortable start to Christmas for some. But hopefully, as Christmas Eve is a Sunday, most travellers will elect to travel earlier than then.’
Engineering work will also affect services around Cambridge and Chelmsford, Essex, lines into Birmingham New Street, those between Bristol and South Wales, and routes in Devon, Cornwall, Shropshire and Hampshire.
Mr McCartney, whose Lincoln constituency is affected by the King’s Cross closure, added: ‘Saying that only four per cent of the network is affected deliberately ignores how important that part of the network is. Everyone can see through their schoolboy spin in saying miles of track on a branch line has the same impact as the equivalent miles on a major line.’
As well as King’s Cross and Paddington, Network Rail has revealed disruption will affect two more major stations in London. At Victoria, Southeastern services are being diverted to Blackfriars, Charing Cross and Cannon Street between December 23 and New Year’s Day. Also, Fenchurch Street will be closed on Christmas Eve and December 27, meaning replacement bus services between the capital and Essex.
Lawrence Bowman, network strategy director for Network Rail, said: ‘We understand how important this time of year is for our passengers as they reconnect with family and friends.
‘But with more than 96 per cent of the network open for business as usual, we have tried as far as possible to design our investment
‘Means longer journeys or replacement bus services’
‘We have tried to keep disruption to a minimum’
projects around our passengers and to keep disruption to a minimum.
‘We are carrying out some significant projects, not as many as in past years, but still it is some £127million of investment ranging from laying new track, installing new bridges and making improvements to stations so that passengers can benefit from better and more reliable services and facilities.
‘We plan our Christmas engineering programmes months, and in some cases years, in advance. We also target the quietest times – overnight, weekends and Christmas Day and Boxing Day to ensure we keep what disruption there is to an absolute minimum.
‘We will also always look to use diversions rather than put people on buses. But some routes will see disruption as we upgrade the railway, so it is important that passengers always check their journeys before travelling.’
OH, WHAT a night’ is the opening line to a favourite song of my childhood by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons – December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night). These lyrics flooded back into my head on Thursday evening as I sat on a GWR train going nowhere just outside Paddington station in London.
What was meant to be a 30-minute journey to Reading turned out to be four-and-a-half hours of living hell as Network Rail, the Fire Brigade and British Transport Police contemplated what to do with us.
While the 900 passengers on board and six other trains – the singer James Blunt and Rachel Riley from TV’s Countdown included – waited for someone to make a decision, this motley crew of individuals umm-ed and ahh-ed within full view of our train.
Rail staff put up lights, only to take them down. They laid pallets on the ground before removing them – and they put some ladders up at the side of the train so that passengers could be evacuated, only to take them down again.
December, 2023 (Oh, What a Night). Please, never again.
The journey to nowhere began at 6.30pm when I arrived at Paddington to catch one of only a handful of trains running from the station. As is its way, Aslef, the train drivers’ bolshie union, had called its members out on strike, so there were no more than three trains I could get home on.
THE 6.30 was going to Cardiff and it was rammed, with many aisles impossible to pass due to the hordes of people forced to stand up.
To begin with, it was something of a party atmosphere with many passengers in good spirits – probably the result of rather fun Christmas lunches.
But the celebrations became more muted as the train soon ground to a halt, with the train manager informing us that there was an electrical fault.
After a bit, that seemed to be remedied and we got going again, only to come to another sudden and shuddering halt.
We were no more than five minutes outside of Paddington, somewhere near Ladbroke Grove.
After a while, we were informed that the overhead cables had fallen on to the train. All rather ominous.
For the next hour, we were kept in the dark. The temperature in the carriages was reduced – presumably to cool down our rising tempers. An emergency passenger alarm indicated that not all was well with many of the troops.
The sight of blue flashing lights indicated that trouble was afoot. A cavalry of British Transport Police officers appeared, as did a cluster of firemen and individuals in high-vis red jackets (Network Rail employees).
They congregated, waved glow sticks at each other and then went about preparing us for an evacuation, one carriage at a time. The police came on board to spread the standing hordes more evenly across the carriages.
The evacuation idea was then abandoned on the grounds that it would take forever and an age. We were then told that we would either be going to Ealing Broadway or back to Paddington. The realisation that James Blunt was among us temporarily raised our spirits.
It even prompted a young lady sitting adjacent to me to get out her flute and play for us. She got a rousing round of applause.
Another passenger was Andrew Haines, boss of Network Rail. How fortuitous. He took to the train’s airwaves to apologise for the delay – and reassure everyone that all was being done to get the train moving again.
His apology was met with a deadly silence.
When we were informed that the train would be heading back to Paddington, there was a collective sigh of relief. But we were then told that we wouldn’t be moving for a while because less obedient passengers on the train behind us had decided to get off and start walking down the tracks.
More than four hours after setting off, the train crawled back into Paddington at 10.50pm. I had a fighting chance of getting a train out of Waterloo, the other side of the Thames, but that was thwarted by a line of police blocking our way on to the Paddington concourse. For the first time, I lost my cool. We were herded like sheep to the taxi-rank where two officials tried to allocate us to cars laid on to take us to the various stopping points on the London Paddington to Cardiff line. But it was pandemonium, and I gave up after half an hour. I didn’t see how James Blunt or Andrew Haines got on, but the
singer later jokily posted on X (Twitter) about being trapped, adding that he had run out of ‘peanuts and wine’ and wanted a takeaway pizza.
Mr Haines issued an apology for ‘letting down’ thousands of passengers, saying the incident was ‘not one of our finest moments’. He also admitted the rail system had ‘failed’ and that ‘we have gone backwards on customer service’.
Meanwhile, a union official claimed that the train that hit the power lines was being driven by a manager who had replaced a striking driver.
I spent the night in London on a friend’s hard floor.
I filed a compensation claim to GWR first thing on Friday morning. It wasn’t acknowledged until later that night. The delay was probably because the company (owned by stock market-listed FirstGroup) has been overwhelmed with claims. I trust compensation will come my way, but I’m not counting on it.
Oh, what a night.
ALEXANDRA SHULMAN IS AWAY
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