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My all-night ordeal on the train to nowhere

People were stranded for hours inside trains stuck on the Elizabeth Line after damaged overhead cables blocked railway lines in London
People were stranded inside trains stuck on the Elizabeth Line after damaged overhead cables blocked railway lines in London - Reuters

For those of us on board the 18.30 Paddington to Cardiff service on Thursday, it started with a metallic scraping noise like nails on a blackboard.

Within seconds, the packed GWR train had slowed to a halt, and so began an all-night ordeal on the train to nowhere.

An overhead power cable had snapped and wrapped itself around our train, holding us in its 25,000-volt grip and blocking the route west out of London. It left thousands of people on mainline and Tube trains trapped in dark and freezing carriages for up to four hours, and ended in the early hours of Friday when black cabs ticking up hundreds of pounds on their meters finally delivered them to their homes, hungry and exhausted.

It brought out the best - and worst - in the British character, as Blitz spirit broke out in some trains, while on others passengers forced open doors to take matters into their own hands. Calm and chaos in equal measure.

At first, the 900-plus passengers on my train assumed the noise coming from the roof was a tree branch or some such, and that we would soon be on the move again. A chap two seats behind me commented that “the last time this happened we were stuck for three hours”. We all quietly dismissed such thoughts from our minds.

Only when the train manager finally admitted an hour later that the overhead cable had snapped and had come to rest on the train did it dawn upon us all that we might be in for the long haul. A family sitting at a table near me produced a Monopoly set from somewhere. Monopoly is not a game that tends to be over quickly. Had they had a premonition?

A train with damaged overhead electric cables in the Ladbroke Grove area of west London
A train with damaged overhead electric cables in the Ladbroke Grove area of west London - PA

At least the Monopoly family had seats. Dozens weren’t so lucky: this was one of the last trains out of London, because of yet another train strike, and vestibules were packed with people standing for what they thought would be a 22-minute inconvenience before the train arrived at Reading and disgorged hundreds of commuters. Pity the families with children who were told over the intercom to make their way to the front of the train where there were some seats in first class, and even some water.

Other passengers on nearby trains had it even worse. Our train still had lighting and heat, but Elizabeth Line Tube trains - which run on the same lines - lost power altogether, leaving passengers cold and dark. They included Rachel Riley, the Countdown co-presenter, and the singer James Blunt.

Rachel Riley posted a selfie on X after she was  finally able to leave her train
Rachel Riley posted a selfie on X after she was finally able to leave her train

Blunt posted on X, formerly Twitter: “Been stuck somewhere outside Paddington for close to 4 hours now. Out of peanuts and wine. Can someone please contact Dominos UK. This is an emergency.”

Some passengers on other trains were evacuated to a nearby depot on foot, others decided to evacuate themselves by forcing open the doors and walking back to Paddington, around two miles from where we were all stuck.

Back on the 18:30, it turned out that Andrew Haines, the Network Rail chief executive, was among the passengers caught up in the nightmare of his firm’s own making.

Around two hours in, he took over announcement duties, telling us we were going back to Paddington, then we were going to go to Ealing Broadway to disembark, then we were going to be evacuated one carriage at a time on to the rails, then finally settling on Paddington again.

“Your bonus is cancelled!” shouted one passenger (for the record, Mr Haines’s salary rose from £554,000 to £590,000 last year).

At Paddington, we were told, another train would be laid on, “subject to the availability of train crew”. The passengers were way ahead of him. “There’s a strike on!” people shouted in unison. Few were likely to be earning the £100,000 salaries enjoyed by some train drivers who have walked out over pay.

Moments before we arrived back at Paddington - around four hours after we had left it - there was a fresh announcement: taxis had been arranged to take us all home! Except that you don’t need to have been there to imagine the scenes when nearly a thousand people turned up all at once at the cab rank.

Passengers after being evacuated from trains stuck on the Elizabeth Line
Passengers after being evacuated from trains stuck on the Elizabeth Line - Reuters

With little to no help from GWR staff, passengers tried to find others going to the same destinations. An Irish gent going to Didcot had the loudest voice. Most of us joined a queue that presumably had an end somewhere, while others, like black market spivs, tried to grab taxis before they entered the station to do side-deals.

Some taxis left with just one or two people in them, conjuring a mental image of half-empty lifeboats casting off from the Titanic. The Blitz spirit had given way to survival of the fittest.

It was past midnight by the time I finally boarded a black cab, meaning I had queued for around 90 minutes. I shared with four Austrians - staying with a friend in Reading - for whom a day trip to London had been their first experience of British railways. From the looks on their faces, I doubt they will be back.

By the time we got to Reading, the taxi meter had clocked up £165, which we had to pay ourselves and will now have to try to claim back from GWR, who had not arranged pre-payment for the cabs. After a 40-minute queue at Reading station for yet another taxi to take me from there to the village where I live, I got through my front door at 2am. Chilled to the bone and supperless, I climbed into bed knowing that for some poor souls out there on the M4, home was a destination still hours in the future.

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