Network Rail chief admits 'service has gone backwards' after 'painful experience' being stuck on west London train

8 December 2023, 19:57 | Updated: 9 December 2023, 00:49

Passengers were stuck on the Elizabeth line for nearly five hours yesterday
Passengers were stuck on the Elizabeth line for nearly five hours yesterday. Picture: Twitter/Linkedin/Alamy

By Kit Heren

The head of Network Rail, who was among thousands of passengers stuck on stranded west London trains on Thursday night, has admitted that "customer service has gone backwards".

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Passengers including James Blunt and Rachel Riley were left in the dark for four hours as Elizabeth Line, Great Western Railway and Heathrow Express services going to and from the west London station were disrupted.

The problem stemmed from damage to the electrical cables above the lines in Ladbroke Grove. There was already a reduced service operating between 7am and 7pm due to a strike.

Two people were injured and one person was said to have been sexually assaulted during the blackout.

Passengers were eventually sent home in taxis after being evacuated from the trains. But one eyewitness told LBC that disabled people were "appallingly" looked after.

Read More: Elizabeth Line passenger groped on train during four-hour blackout as police arrest suspect

Read More: 'Who was in charge?' Fury at Elizabeth Line chaos that saw thousands stranded before 'smashing out of carriages'

Network Rail boss Andrew Haines, who was on a Great Western Railway train, admitted that the "hugely disruptive incident" was "not one of our finest moments", adding that "as an industry, we let down thousands of passengers."

Writing on LinkedIn, he said: "For once I had the pain of experiencing it at first hand, both as a customer and as a colleague looking to support others in a testing circumstance.

"It wasn't pleasant and I had the benefit of being with a great crew on a train with auxiliary power."

Network Rail is a state-owned company that owns and operates the UK's rail infrastructure, but not the trains themselves.

Mr Haines said that "the vast majority of customers were utterly brilliant", despite the few incidents of criminality. He said that they were"calm, patient, even supportive. Amazing!"

He also said that he "witnessed first-hand some outstanding colleagues from across the railway family busting a gut to do the right thing.

The rail boss added that "it was a privilege and humbling to work alongside them".

But he said that "we failed as a system", adding that "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."

File photo of Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines
File photo of Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines. Picture: Alamy

Mr Haines also said: "Lastly, we have 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."

He shared his "heartfelt apologies to anyone caught up in last night's problems."

Mr Haines added: "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."

The Network Rail boss is said to have stayed behind until after midnight to help find taxis for passengers.

It is still unclear what caused the incident. The train drivers union said cables were damaged by a non-union driver operating the train, but Great Western Railway said there was no evidence for that.

Aslef claimed that the person driving the train on Thursday was an operations investigations manager who had been paid £500 by Great Western Railway (GWR) for a short driving shift in order to keep services running during a strike.

Aslef, the union for train drivers, said it is a "problem" that managers "haven't driven a train for a long time", affecting their "competence".

"We saw the result yesterday. Significant damage to the railway infrastructure, passengers put at risk, and serious disruption to the rail network," a spokesperson for Aslef told MailOnline.

"But, I suppose, as an operations investigations manager, he is uniquely qualified to investigate his own actions and what went wrong."

GWR has defended the driver, insisting he was "fully qualified with competence up to date".

"The only people who can drive trains are competent drivers with route knowledge and competence maintained," a spokesperson said.

"As yet, there is absolutely no evidence the OHLE (overhead electric equipment) fault was due to a train."

A Network Rail spokesperson said: "We are so sorry for the difficult journeys passengers endured on our railway last night and we will be investigating how and why it happened.

"The knock-on effects from last night mean operators will not be able to run a full service from Paddington today and passengers should check before they travel."Repairs are ongoing and we hope to have the railway fully open by the weekend."

TfL said: "We’re sorry that the damage caused to Network Rail’s overhead power lines by another rail operator’s train has caused significant disruption to our Elizabeth line customers as well as all train operators out of London Paddington. We worked to get customers off of stranded trains as quickly as possible and to provide any support needed.

"Network Rail are continuing to urgently to repair the power lines and we’d encourage all customers to check before they travel while they do this."

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