Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Will West Coast become 'misery line?'

By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Police at the scene after a light aircraft crashed onto the railway line at Colwich Junction, Staffordshire. Picture date 3 January, 2009
The line was closed after a plane crashed into the tracks
For more than 160 years, many millions of rail travellers have been ferried between London and Scotland on the West Coast Main Line, one of Britain's busiest rail routes.

But of late, it's become a serious contender for the title of Misery Line, a description previously applied to London Underground's Northern Line.

Passengers have experienced lengthy delays in the biting cold, been shuffled onto replacement buses or forced to abandon journeys altogether.

And the reason? An unrelated and unfortunate string of problems, says Network Rail, from power failures to cracked rails, and most seriously, a plane crash on the track.

Teething problems

The company says it has launched an investigation into the problems, but in the meantime rail travellers and businesses have been left smarting.

Virgin Trains, which operates on the line, says seven in every 10 journeys on the line have been late.

Passenger Focus, the body representing British rail travellers, says the delays have been particularly painful coming just as passengers have been hit by rail fare hikes.

And the British Chamber of Commerce has put the cost to businesses at nearly 13m a day this week.

Last year, the future had looked fairly bright for the line which underwent 9bn of improvements.

A new timetable brought in on 14 December by Virgin Trains claimed to be an early Christmas present for passengers of improved services and shorter journey times.

But teething problems caused by a blown fuse in north-west London on day one brought slight delays and Network Rail was struck off many passengers' Christmas card list.

The rail company acted swiftly to solve the problem though and BBC transport correspondent Tom Symonds wrote it off as an "embarrassing slip".

Much worse was to come.

Emma and Nick O'Brien
Emma and Nick O'Brien were killed when the plane went down
On 2 January, a light aircraft crashed into power lines over a stretch of the line near Little Haywood in Staffordshire, killing three people.

Married couple Nick and Emma O'Brien died alongside the pilot, Alan Matthews.

The accident forced the closure of the line between Rubgy and Stafford over the weekend while the accident investigators removed the plane wreckage from the track.

By Sunday, Network Rail engineers were able to get on the tracks to fix the damaged track and power lines, and services were almost back to normal by Monday morning rush hour.

However, there was already more trouble some 100 miles south.

Night shifts

Damaged overhead power cables at Watford Junction meant Sunday trains in and out of Euston were cancelled and replacement bus services laid on for frustrated passengers, many of whom were returning home after the Christmas break.

An exasperated Chris Gibb, chief operating officer for Virgin Trains, concluded: "So not a good weekend for us, and our customers in particular."

You can't hang the blame on Network Rail for cracked rails

Graeme Monteith, chartered engineer

Network Rail engineers worked overnight to fix the lines in time for Monday.

But by Tuesday, two more overhead cable were damaged, one north of Rugby in the West Midlands, the other at Bletchley in Buckinghamshire.

And to add further pain, a cracked rail between Coventry and Birmingham was causing more delays.

In defence, Network Rail said it was a "massive piece of infrastructure" but it didn't mean it wouldn't go wrong.

The latest power failure in north-west London resulted in all London Midland and Virgin services trains in and out of London's busy Euston being halted on Wednesday.

The litany of problems has been met with some understanding as Britain is in the throes of extreme weather conditions.

I have travelled from Stockholm to the Arctic Circle on a train that arrived five minutes early, yet Britain lapses into chaos at the first hint of snow
Norman Baker, Lib Dem transport spokesman

Graeme Monteith, a chartered engineer from the Institution of Civil Engineers, says the freezing weather would have played a part in Network Rail's woes.

"You can't hang the blame on Network Rail for cracked rails," he said.

Such problems were difficult to anticipate, he said, and were brought on by the very cold temperatures.

British Chamber of Commerce director general David Frost is less patient.

"There is no excuse for the huge amount of chaos this rushed upgrade to the West Coast Mainline has caused travellers," he said.

"Businesses have lost a staggering 38m in just three days because Network Rail have again failed to adequately deliver."

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Passenger Focus, said it had not been the best start to the new year for passengers and he hoped normal services would resume soon.

He added passengers had expected to see a greater resilience and a reduction of infrastructure problems once the upgrade was completed.

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Norman Baker echoed passengers' views, saying: "Natural events do occur, but Network Rail needs to build more resilience into the network.

"I have travelled from Stockholm to the Arctic Circle on a train that arrived five minutes early, yet Britain lapses into chaos at the first hint of snow."

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