The head of Network Rail has apologised for the industry “letting down” thousands of passengers who were trapped on trains in west London - as he revealed he was on board one of the stricken services.
Andrew Haines said that the incident, that followed damage to overhead electric cables that sparked chaos across the network, was “not one of our finest moments” and that the rail system had “failed” while admitting “we have gone backwards on customer service”.
Rail chiefs are facing demands for an urgent investigation into the “nightmare journeys” suffered by thousands of passengers trapped for about four hours on trains in west London on Thursday. Disruption to rail services was expected to continue until the end of Friday.
Seven trains — four Elizabeth line, two Heathrow Express and a Great Western Railway intercity service — were stranded when the GWR train crashed into broken power lines near Ladbroke Grove at about 6.30pm on Thursday night. It emerged on Friday that the train was being driven by a manager who was replacing a striking driver.
Passengers on the packed Elizabeth line trains, including families heading into central London for Christmas shows, travellers who had landed at Heathrow and TV presenter Rachel Riley, were eventually led along the tracks to safety at about 10.30pm.
They had been left in the cold and dark for hours as the on-board power failed, with the driver of one east-bound train telling passengers he could not get through to the control centre. It is understood drivers on tracks west of Paddington rely on advice from Network Rail’s signalling centre in Swindon. Transport for London pointed the finger at Network Rail, which has repeatedly been to blame for delays suffered by the £20 billion Elizabeth line due to infrastructure failures on Network Rail’s track west of Paddington.
Writing on LinkedIn, Mr Haines said he had the “pain of experiencing it at first hand” as he had been on one of the trains which became stuck.
“We failed as a system. Too many individual actors seeing risk from their own perspective meant it was harder than it should have been to get things done whilst maintaining safety. Multiple self-evacuations, because of the pace at which we were able to move or even access trains, cannot be regarded as good safety practice.”
He added that the rail industry had “gone backwards on customer service”.
“Tools to look after passengers that I would have used as a station manager in 1987 - before I’d even seen a mobile phone - were not available and we were hardly great at it then. We can do better than we did last night when we take customers legitimate concerns seriously. None of us would have wanted our friends or family to have had to go through it.
“By coincidence, my son was on the same train as me along with 981 other people and provided ample feedback via our family WhatsApp group.
“My heartfelt apologies to anyone caught up in last night’s problems. I intend to use my own painful experience in committing to improve how we deliver for our customers and support our colleagues, especially when things go wrong.”
Passengers also criticised TfL for the lack of on-board information. Some passengers had to be lowered on to the tracks to urinate as TfL’s £1 billion fleet of trains — which can carry in excess of 1,000 passengers — were deliberately built without lavatories.
London TravelWatch, the capital’s public transport watchdog, said a “detailed investigation was needed as soon as possible” into the “nightmare journeys”.
A TravelWatch spokesman said on Friday: “The apparent lack of communication and slow response time to get passengers off to a place of safety is just as concerning. We have heard reports that some passengers even tried to open the doors themselves to self-evacuate. This is extremely dangerous which is why clear information, and a swift co-ordinated response, is a must in emergency situations like this.
"We expect the TfL Elizabeth line, Network Rail and other authorities involved to investigate this incident thoroughly. Lessons need to be learned so if this sort of thing does ever happen again, both the communication and response is vastly improved.”
Transport Secretary Mark Harper described it as a “serious incident”. Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall called on Sadiq Khan, who is the TfL chair, to “make a full apology to those affected”.
Nearly 4 hours after we got on, we’re getting off the Elizabeth line, woohoo! pic.twitter.com/SiuJjKTSze
— Rachel Riley MBE 💙 (@RachelRileyRR) December 7, 2023
She said: “What happened on the Elizabeth line was undoubtedly distressing for thousands of passengers. I hope TfL gets to the bottom of how this happened, so it can ensure this never happens again.”
A spokesman for the Mayor said: “This was clearly a very distressing experience for everyone involved. TfL are speaking to Network Rail and Great Western Rail to investigate what happened and are working hard to resume normal services on the Elizabeth line as soon as possible.”
The Evening Standard has been told that the west-bound GWR train, which was travelling from Paddington to Cardiff via Bristol Temple Meads, “went into something”, with the impact bringing down the overhead power cables. The GWR train was eventually able to reverse — using its diesel engines — back into Paddington at 11pm, with passengers being taken to Reading via Waterloo or being found hotels.
Passengers on the Elizabeth line were taken off the train near Old Oak Common and then had to walk to Willesden Junction to try to continue their journeys or get a taxi home. The Paddington to Abbey Wood section of the Elizabeth line also had to close last night as a consequence, forcing thousands more passengers to find alternative transport.
Network Rail, which is in charge of the track and power infrastructure, said all four lines in and out of Paddington had to be closed. The lines reopened on Friday morning but services continued to be restricted with National Rail saying in an update on Friday afternoon that disruption was likely to last until the end of the day. GWR, whose services have been affected by an Aslef train drivers’ overtime ban, advised its passengers not to travel between London and Reading this morning.
Passengers described the situation and lack of communication on Thursday night as “appalling”. Countdown star Ms Riley posted on X/Twitter that she had been stuck on board an Elizabeth line train for almost four hours. Singer James Blunt was also caught up in the chaos. “Been stuck somewhere outside Paddington for close to 4 hours now. Out of peanuts and wine,” he posted on X.
One of the commuters caught up in the train debacle compared the “surreal” passenger evacuation to something that “felt like a wartime thing”.
Mikey Worrall described the experience as “the most surreal evening” of his life.
He described the train as lurching to a stop and then a long, multiple-hour wait in semi-darkness as the driver drip-fed what little information they had through to passengers.
Eventually, the battery backup running the train’s heating and light services ran out, and passengers were left in darkness for another hour and a half until the evacuation came.
Mr Worrall said: “We saw a couple of workers come past, and they were trying to keep everyone calm. Suddenly, we saw a stream of people coming down the track, and at that point, it was clear that we would be getting off.
“It was really eerie walking down the railway line in amongst this big crowd of people. It felt like a wartime thing.”
Several commuters shared images of large queues for taxis after passengers were evacuated, with one writing: “Somehow they’re getting nearly 1000 people into taxis. Wish us luck.”
One passenger described “total chaos” as others tired of being stuck on board “revolted and started walking off” the train. They claimed there was “no management” of the situation at all.
Another traveller wrote on X: “We are well and truly stuck, sounds like some pretty serious damage on the overheads, so no power on the line. The driver has just announced that we need to be ‘rescued’, whatever that means.”
Comedian Paul Chowdhry said his friend was stuck on one of the trains, witnessing other people “using train tracks as toilets” and some “even using their seats.”
— The Last Lallis (@CaroLallis) December 7, 2023
“And he just became a British citizen after immigrating from Bangladesh,” he said. “Welcome to England, mate.”
A Network Rail spokesperson said: “We are so sorry for the difficult journeys passengers endured last night and we will be investigating how and why it happened.”
Figures published on Thursday showed that almost 5,000 Elizabeth line trains were cancelled at the end of the summer - the biggest increase in cancellations in the country.
A total of 5.2 per cent of Elizabeth line trains were cancelled between July and September, according to latest figures from Office for Rail and Road.
The line also suffered a 4.5 point annual fall in punctuality, with 82.8 per cent of trains arriving on time or within five minutes of timetable.
— James Blunt (@JamesBlunt) December 7, 2023
Travellers already faced disruption on Thursday as train driver members of Aslef launched a rolling programme of walkouts and a ban on overtime.
Train drivers on CrossCountry, Great Western Railway and Heathrow Express walked out on Thursday in a bitter dispute over pay.
The frequency of the Heathrow Express was halved from four trains an hour to two and it will not run before 7am or after 7.15pm.
A week-long ban on overtime by Aslef members at all the train operators involved in the dispute will end this weekend.