Celebrities and rail bosses were among hundreds trapped by downed wires in west London
It’s already entered folklore as the Great Paddington Dewiring. When a major terminal is paralysed, one of the world’s busiest airports has connections severed, a showpiece metro grinds to a halt, shoppers, celebrities and business bosses are all trapped on stationary trains, and it all happens in London in the run up to Christmas, you have the sort of scenario that makes the six o’clock news. It most certainly did. Oh, and there was a strike on.
If you are going to pull down the wires above the tracks on the approach to Paddington station, you probably don’t want to do it on a December day when traffic is building up for Christmas, and the evening commuters are getting ready for the run home. Oh, and it would probably be a bad idea to do it when the chief executive of Network Rail is on the train. Thursday’s dewiring in London was probably the worst publicity the beleaguered British railway network could have feared.
Haines on board for “painful experience”
Let’s be clear about perspective. Fury and frustration by the train load for sure, but there were no injuries nor fatalities among the hundreds trapped on board stranded trains, nor among the tens of thousands, abandoned on draughty platforms from Penzance, Plymouth and Port Talbot, to Patchway, Pangborne and Paddington, or indeed, Heathrow Express passengers, missing their flights. This was however an undoubted public relations train wreck for the industry. On the same day, widespread industrial action hit the north of England – but that’s not London, so all the media focus was on the capital’s calamity.
“Firstly, the vast majority of customers were utterly brilliant. Calm, patient, even supportive”, said one passenger, who just happened to be Andrew Haines, the chief executive of Network Rail, Britain’s infrastructure agency, and the man at the helm of the transition team, aiming to manage the move over to a body with wider responsibility for both track and trains, the much anticipated Great British Railways. “We let down thousands of passengers after a hugely disruptive incident just outside of Paddington station. 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.”
You’re (not so) Beautiful is the Blunt response
One passenger, quoted on social media, said the train evacuation and walk in darkness to the nearby Westbourne Park station was like a wartime experience. A fellow traveller declined to describe the scene as a war zone. That more reserved passenger was the chart-topping singer James Blunt, who does know what he’s talking about. The former British Army Captain, who claims to have been shot at more often that gangland rapper Fifty Cent, was a passenger on an Elizabeth Line train, caught up in the bedlam. “Been stuck somewhere outside Paddington for close to four hours now. Out of peanuts and wine”, he commented on his famously self-depreciating social media feeds.
The Elizabeth Line was the unfortunate service most depreciated by the dewiring. The service has already come bottom of the reliability statistics, mainly due to its remarkable popularity leading to delays at stations. Counting down the hours to rescue from another of those busy cross-London trains was popular TV presenter and celebrity mathematician Rachel Riley, co-host of the long-running language and numbers panel quiz show: Countdown. “Nearly four hours after we got on”, she said; “we’re getting off the Elizabeth Line, woohoo!” possibly not the most ringing endorsement for which Transport for London would have been hoping.
Gone backwards on customer service
The short winter daylight meant it was already pitch dark when the wires came down. Images posted online suggest a Great Western Railways express was involved, and it would appear that was the train upon which Andrew Haines was travelling, along with 981 other passengers – according to his own account. “This is not the place to go into the why’s and wherefores, the causes of the incident are yet to be determined”, said Haines in a lengthy statement. The feeling is that Haines has the motivation, and indeed the position, to take this experience into future planning – just not right away, as the wires came down again on Sunday, affecting the Great Western Main Line again, and also the venerable East Coast Main Line – bad luck for thousands of Newcastle United football fans, albeit they avoided witnessing their team losing heavily at Tottenham in London.
“We failed as a system”, said Haines. “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. “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. We can do better than we did. We take customers legitimate concerns seriously. None of us would have wanted our friends or family to have had to go through it. My heartfelt apologies. 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.”