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.