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NR and Southeastern apologise for trains stranded in freezing weather, outline major action plan

Network Rail and Southeastern have unveiled an action plan on how they plan to respond to major incidents after an independent investigation identified a series of problems with how the two organisations deal with this issue.

The investigation, led by consultants Arthur D Little and Southwood Rail Consulting separately from the RAIB probe, looked into an incident on 2 March which saw nine Southeastern trains stranded in sub-zero conditions. A single delayed train initially struggled to take power when leaving Lewisham station in the afternoon, but the event developed so quickly that less than an hour later, all nine trains were stuck. Some did not arrive at their final destinations until after midnight.

Some passengers had to walk down the track in the freezing cold whilst others were trapped in the unheated vehicle without access to a toilet, forcing commuters to relieve themselves in their own clothes.

The report found that passengers on the stranded trains—stuck between Lewisham and North Kent East Junction—experienced “significant levels of discomfort” and had to self-evacuate to the track, something made even more unsafe considering the risk of electrocution on third rail lines.

Consultants said that poor communication and the “ineffective command and control arrangements implemented” contributed to the incident, allowing it to escalate further.

For example, the industry did not do enough to put the needs of stranded passengers first; the Network Rail team in the London Bridge Area Signalling Centre failed to recognise the significance of the incident quickly enough; command and control arrangements were inadequate for the type and scale of the incident; and the communication during the incident itself was not effective or adequate.

The report identified six recommendations for Network Rail’s south east route and Southeastern to prevent or mitigate similar incidents in the future, all of which have been accepted by the two parties. These range from weather-related decision-making procedures to helping staff in control, signalling and driving functions prevent potential stranding incidents.

‘Unacceptable and regrettable’ incident

Both the TOC and Network Rail have admitted that the events of 2 March were “unacceptable and regrettable,” and pledged to implement all of the report’s recommendations.

They have listed a number of improvements which are already underway. For example, the two organisations will deliver training for more than 3,500 staff based on an ongoing independent review of command and control procedures, including scenario simulation of major incidents.

Separately, Network Rail is considering expanding the installation of conductor rail heating to cover key locations such as Lewisham, which aren’t prone to freezing but might still benefit from heating in extreme situations. A trial of a more effective anti-icer on NR’s fleet of snow and ice treatment trains will be carried out, and Southeastern is also exploring the use of ice-breaker shoes on some passenger trains.

The companies are also working together with specialist consultants to examine the criteria needed to decide if trains should be running in extreme weather, and will strive to improve how they communicate with each other and with customers during winter.

Lastly, operator Southeastern could implement engineering changes to extend train battery life, meaning train communication systems and lighting could stay on longer if the third rail power system is unavailable.

In a joint statement, the TOC’s managing director David Statham and Network Rail’s south east route MD John Halsall said that winter conditions in 2018 were “the most challenging we’ve seen in the south east for more than a decade.”

“We sincerely apologise to passengers for what was an unpleasant and distressing experience. Our staff worked exceptionally hard in extremely difficult circumstances, but the number of trains involved in this incident made it difficult to co-ordinate a response,” they explained.

“Both Southeastern and Network Rail are taking steps to minimise the possibility of this happening again. We are improving our management of extreme weather, examining ways to keep the power on when conductor rails fail and updating our procedures for communicating with passengers in an emergency.”


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