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Friday, 10 June 2011

Major questions over incident management as thousands of passengers stranded on South West Trains suburban commuter services

After the train had been stationary for around two hours passengers on the 18:25 South West Trains service from London Waterloo to Alton heard an alarming announcement: "If there is a doctor or anyone with insulin on board, can you please make yourself known to the driver or the guard."

Emma is 8 months pregnant.  Having waited twenty minutes for the delayed service she joined at Clapham Junction at ten to seven, she expected to be home in Farnham and enjoying a cooked meal by eight. At twenty past ten, four hours after arriving at Clapham Junction, she was still on a train that had been stationary for over 3 hours outside Woking. "It was just really lucky I had a Mars bar at Clapham," she joked.

A source at South West Trains told me up to 22 trains were stranded at 9pm this evening.

Whilst I was there at Woking station, at least 3 separate groups of passengers took matters into their own hands and disembarked from the carriages using the emergency exit.  The direct action caused further problems, as power then had to be cut whilst the passengers made their way off the railway.  A British Transport police officer at the scene later told me all passengers who exited faced arrest. 

Staff at Woking station were a disgrace. At around 9pm a South West Trains staff member told me all trains that left Clapham before 7 had now all come in.  Not true.  Another told me I had to deal with it like everyone else.  A third told me not to tell him how to run a railway.

All three knew my stranded wife was heavily pregnant, but at one stage I was threatened with arrest for "verbally abusing" a staff member "by raising my voice" (note: I honestly didn't swear once).  Another passenger leapt to my rescue when the police officer came over, "he was not shouting, he's just not getting any help."

This evening South West Trains were forced to deal with multiple signal failures, reportedly caused by cable thefts at three locations.  Whilst waiting around the station I got to have a quiet word with two train crews (driver + guard) about the mess.  Both crews told me that, up to a certain point at least, neither of the signalling failures in the Woking area prevented rescuing the stranded passengers.

It would mean shunting empty carriages off the platform into sidings, or sending some back towards London; making room for the stranded trains to be moved into the station so passengers could disembark.  But that was a matter for the bosses.  For safety reasons drivers could only perform "standard operations" (defined in Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs).

I get the distinct feeling that leaving passengers - most of whom were expecting total journey times of under an hour - stranded on stationary trains was a "least worst" option.  Never mind the insulin user or the heavily pregnant ladies; the operation to get passengers off the trains would cause other headaches for South West Trains, such as providing alternative onward journey options and reimbursing taxi fares.

A driver told me "the managers just kept on sending the trains out of Waterloo even though we all knew there was a really major situation emerging with all these failures".

Then they got past the point of no return.  Train crews at Woking went off shift. Many of the remaining drivers were stranded on their own trains.  When the first group of passengers decided to disembark, power had to be cut, causing further problems.

This is not the first time passengers have been stranded for hours.  Both Emma and I were stationary for over 2 hours a couple of years ago after a tree blew onto the line between Ash Vale and Aldershot.  We were the other side of Ash Vale, and once again a quiet word with the guard confirmed that the physical capability existed on sections of line still open to shuffle trains into Ash Vale, allow passengers to disembark, then drive the empty carriages down to a nearby junction to get the empty train out of the way, making room for the next.  "But we'll only do that if it's an absolute emergency."

Leaving passengers stranded might well be the easy option for South West Trains, but it is definitely not in the best interests of passengers.  The diabetic, or parents needing to be home in time to collect their children...

On one hand passengers leaving the train made things worse for other passengers.  But South West Trains must understand that they cannot expect passengers to submit indefinitely to their mismanagement of a situation, leaving themselves imprisoned indefinitely.  I sympathise with those whose problems were exacerbated, but I'm quietly saluting those said enough was enough.

There being a clear public safety consideration I can't believe South West Trains did not plan for such scenarios.

This incident should be the point at which the train operator is forced to reconsider their whole approach when planning to avoid passenger stranding.

Lessons to learn? As an incident like this develops, I would expect to see senior staff arrive on the scene to help alleviate concerns.  When I try and explain to three separate staff members that Emma's train was stranded whilst others whiz past in the same direction, I expect my concerns to be taken seriously, not threatened with arrest because I was hitting a brick wall.

South West Trains - the Office of the Rail Regulator - do something to end the unwarranted imprisonment of passengers.



  1. "Staff at Woking station were a disgrace"

    Nothing new there then.. At Woking they always seem to be rude and defensive, at Guildford, polite but clueless.

    The irony of all this is that SWtrains are part of the Stagecoach Group, who run a bus company. In all my miserable years as a rail passenger I've never yet seen the rail division communicate with the bus division to get stranded passengers home! Mind you, the local taxi drivers love it, and as one of them said to me once, "it's regular work, so we don't complain".

    I may go to work by car later today ...

  2. Can't really blame passengers for getting off. For me the lack of information or any sign that situation would be resolved soon tempted me to leave. If we'd been told it was going to be so many minutes and then we would get off then fine, but with the lack of accurate information it's no wonder people fearing they'd be stuck all night thought, bugger this! It's a free country and there's a limit to the suffering I will endure!

  3. BBC report transport police taking trespass on the railway seriously. More seriously than cable theft that caused the chaos!

  4. A few points to those who say wrong to get off:

    1. Power was already off on Emma's train. Door was already open to air packed carriage that had no aircon due to power being off
    2. Absolutely no indication of how much longer would be stranded. A gradual drip-drip of excuses for 3 hours.
    3. South West Trains should have had a plan for this eventuality. There are documented case studies of stranded passengers simply leaving the carriages after exceptional delays
    4. Why were there no incident teams in Woking to help relatives of the stranded?
    5. Managers intellectual ability to explain and reason was *nothing* compared to the drivers knowledge and understanding of the system. Leaves serious questions over incident management capability at higher levels of #swt
    6. Leaving passengers stranded *also* stranded spare train crews coming into Woking to help get the trains shifted.
    7. Police threats to pursue people for trespass are crazy, BTP should be focussing on the real crims who took the cable
    8. As far as I could judge, the first passenger disembarkation occurred around 9:20pm, after passengers had been stranded over 2 hours. That's when the customer service staff that were available at Woking all "disappeared" to help. Emma didn't leave till an hour after this.
    9. The initial fault was not South West Trains, none of the above to me looks like a credible plan to handle an incident such as this. Stranded train crews, shunting possible but no clear direction from managers, lack of information, inaccurate information, no senior staff on hand, no water.

    I have to question how far up the priorities of #swt does passenger comfort sit? Judging by the hideous cramped 3-seat seating arrangements I would say quite low.

    It is clear passengers who did leave, whilst affecting others, were only acting as what they saw as a last resort - to leave before it got too dark to leave, when they had not reason to believe they wouldn't be there all night!

  5. Oh - additionally - the attitude of sitting obediently is exactly how we arrived at a situation where train companies think they can get away with disgraceful neglect of their duty of care to passengers. Quote from @hubmum on Twitter:

    "There was a guy on our carriage from S Africa. He said if in SA the doors wld be ripped from hinges"

  6. Getting off the train may have seemed right for Emma (and I'm glad she got home ok), but it was a rather selfish action. It meant that all the trains behind got stuck for an extra hour whilst the police ensured that no-one was left on the tracks. And yes, there were diabetic and pregnant ladies on those trains behind too who were stuck for even longer because of it.

    Not defending SWT for a minute though - atrocious communications. Even the guard asked for anyone with access to the web to find out what was going on.

  7. Two things to remember here, though:

    Emma's train was not the first to have passengers leave, and Emma herself was not the first person to leave her train. The power was already off, and since others were leaving I can understand in her situation why she left.

    You mention the people on other carriages behind, but this passenger action will hopefully force South West Trains to revise their incident plans to prevent such a scenario from ever happening again.

    I'm truly sorry other people got stuck and may have been delayed further by the combined actions of passengers, I really don't think Emma's own actions had any material impact on the situation, and I really do think forcing train companies to reconsider their strategy will be in the best long-term interests of all passengers - for all future pregnant/insulin-users/etc who use South West Trains. This was not the first time Emma has been stranded stationary for 2 hours outside a station on South West Trains.

    The underlying problems with incident planning need addressing now, and if it takes passenger action: direct action or legal action to force SWT to make things better for everyone then so be it.

    James Firth

  8. Getting off the train in the first place is unacceptable. It was selfish behaviour as other people were stuck in trains behind the ones near to station. This action extended thousands of other peoples journeys. Emma clearly acted *after* the initial leavers, but will have extended this period yet again. SWT need to have some sort of plan in place, e.g. giving people the opportunity to leave at earlier unscheduled stations. These small problems have just compounded into huge issues. I'd have thought SWT would have better disaster recovery in place.

  9. Unacceptable is a strong term. Protest, direct action etc all forms part of the mix of living in a democratic society. Without this important feedback channel corporations are free to ignore the strong views of their customers. The feedback channel is even more important when dealing with corporations with an effective monopoly, like Stagecoach/South West Trains. People rarely can choose which train company to use to get to work.

    James Firth

  10. Is it unacceptable to take action to avoid being falsely imprisoned overnight?

    I hope train companies across the country are now realising they have to do something to avoid shocking situations like this.

    Those that acted have made things better in the long run. Totally acceptable behaviour.

  11. It would appear South West Trains and National Rail did not consider passengers' wellbeing at all last night. This was a crisis situation but SWT & NR had no plan in place. And let's be honest this kind of delay isn't that unusual, so why dont they have a passenger focused crisis management plan in place?

  12. It is a strong term. Employees are dismissed for venturing onto the tracks without the correct training. It is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Direct action shouldn't involve the health and well being of other passengers. Statistically speaking there were likely a large number of pregnant women, pensioners, people with medicine requirements, people with ill relatives, people with families to meet ... shall I keep on going? The disembarkment was an entirely selfish and self-motivated action .. sweet f.a. to do with "direct action" .. appropriating it as such is not correct.
    As passengers, we should write to our MP's and demand a change in the passengers charter and a requirement to put reasonable disaster recovery in place.

  13. I have a strong diametrically opposed view here and I don't see me changing my mind.

    Direct action may have affected other passengers, but I'm sure it has brought matters to a head and will in the long run result in improved procedures for all travellers - pregnant or otherwise.

    The responsibility for the problem was the vandals/thieves nicking cable. The responsibility for situation handling lies with South West Trains.

    Please stop blaming the effect - passenger action - on the root causes. Blatant disregard to their duty of care.

    Better communication alone would have helped.

    I see your view, I understand what you're saying, but I don't agree - because South West Trains have done this before...

  14. ... And will keep doing it, as long as they can get away with it??!

    The cost to train companies for passenger delays is all laid out in the minute detail... wonder what the financial penalty is for stuck passengers???

    Not sure this action will change anything... but strangely find myself sympathetic with the rebels... who made their points rather effectively!

  15. Sorry to be anal about this, but the infrastructure is provided by Network Rail. SWT were working properly and were also victims of the petty thievery. Their lack of procedure is bad, but their general promptness outside these "disasters" is excellent. We are all reliant on a single mode of transport with multiple potentials for a single point of failure through numerous causes. When a scrapyard fire closed the bridge on the M1, did we all go blaming the AA?
    The extra provision required for the "disasters" such as this will just rocket our train fares even quicker. Would people from Woking and beyond have been happier being dropped off at Weybridge or West Byfleet to make their own way?

  16. You'll be pleased to know SWT were obviously more concerned with ticket checks than stranded people, having a large crowd of inspectors at Hounslow, greeting the delayed passengers with some quite rude attitudes..

  17. The contract of carriage is with South West Trains. The duty of care lies with the train operator. National rail is a provider for South West Trains but that's of little concern to the passenger, whose contract is with South West Trains.

    If you were waiting at Woking for nearly 3 hours like I was you would have overheard the views of staff, and even police.

    The attitude of the duty manager, AWOL for best part of an hour, then more concerned with directing traffic in the forecourt than listening to concerned relatives.

    Poor/lack of communications alone must have played a major part in the passenger revolt. This was directly under the control of South West Trains.

    It was also under the control of SWT to have senior staff on hand, empowered to deal with grievances. We're talking about a massive multi-million pound business. If they can't get a team of senior customer service staff to a Surrey station in less than an hour then heaven help us.

    James Firth

  18. I have full sympathy for Emma and agree that without direct action from passengers SWT's crisis management will not improve.

    The power to the line was already off, people had already left. I can't view her leaving the train, after three hours of confinement, as anything but the action of a responsible expectant mother removing herself from a stressful and unhealthy environment, In the absence of any assistance from the train operator that owed her a duty of care.

    Professor Gary Slapper wrote in the Times, 23 August 2007, "False imprisonment is also a tort (a civil wrong), which means the victim can sue for compensation. Total restraint of the liberty, even for a short time, by the use or threat of force or by confinement is considered an imprisonment. The claimant needn’t prove that the imprisonment was unlawful or malicious: if the claimant establishes a prima facie (at first impression) case by proving that he was imprisoned by the defendant, the onus then falls on the defendant to prove a legal justification."

    My sympathies go to all passengers and relatives involved in this incident.

  19. I am sick and tired of hearing how crap the rail staff are. ALL rail staff should be sacked IMMEDIATELY. Problem solved. Simples. Next problem.

    That said, passengers who got off were putting themselves and others in danger. Hopefully, next time, the cops will tazer them and set the dogs on they asses

  20. Speaking as one of the thousands of passengers who had an arduous 5+ hour journey via Reading to get home thanks to the actions of people leaving the trains my views may not be quite the same as yours, your sister's and the not so mysterious if you use Twitter Keith.

    I'm impressed that at least one of the party involved had a current PTS license and carried out the correct procedures to confirm that the power was off and moreover that the controllers in Eastleigh where made aware of their presence on the track so they knew not to reconnect the power. I'm assuming that after clearing trackside they also informed the controllers that the track was now clear?

    Of course I know for a fact they did not. My colleague was on one of the trains stranded and they had the power restored to their track and where being given instructions by the guard that they where to draw up to the train in front so they could be evacuated safely. Almost immediately the power was again terminated as staff had spotted further unauthorised people on the track and that was that for an hour or two more until staff had completely swept the area to ensure that reapplying power was safe.

    It is perfectly possible to raise issues of poor communication, ineffective management, improper response to incidents and concerns over safety without putting lives at risk or impacting thousands of other people. I agree these are all valid concerns SWT needs to answer for and that if you so choose you can take direct action by picketing stations or maybe your sister could push for a solid bit of investigative journalism into whether SWT genuinely prioritises stranding passengers instead of complying with their contractual responsibilities as set out in the conditions of carriage such as you accuse them of. (For moderation purposes I hope I am at liberty to repost that potentially libellous assertion from your main post as it seems an important point)

    Shortly RMT will be taking direct action to try and change the view of management who have made some dubious choices as to the safe carriage of passengers; I'm assuming they will receive the same support from you as you show for passengers taking that line? Or do people being paid by the train companies deserve less rights than those paying the train companies?

    You might think from my comments that I'm left wing (I'm not, much of your writing I would agree with), a union supporter (not at all), or a member of the rail industry (actually I'm broadly in the same line of work as yourself and Keith). I am however slightly annoyed that those carrying out a foolhardy act are continually presented as heroes striking a blow for rights; they were not, they simply valued their own needs over and above those of other people, like me, whom they impacted. The word for that in my dictionary, by definition, is "selfish".

  21. As I stated above, I disagree. Leaving passengers stranded has happened before, and continues to happen. The actions of those leaving the carriages has forced a proper review.

    It was my wife, not my sister. She was not the first to leave, and only left because she felt it was the best option, given all the information to hand. Because she was not the first, and not the only person to leave at that time, her actions alone did not affect anyone.

    Train companies can only rely on compliance and obedience to a point.

    Safety is important, but all too often it is used as an excuse just to carry on doing things a certain way, or to force compliance where otherwise it would be hard to force such compliance.

    I'm closing comments on this because I've made my point, others have made their points, and the debate doesn't really have much further to run.