/ Travel & Leisure

My nightmare South Western Rail journey

I thought #TrainPain only applied to commuters fed up with minor regular delays, but then I boarded the 08:26 from Surbiton to London Waterloo last week…

This is a guest post by Grace Kindred. All views expressed are Grace’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

I travel from zone six to zone one to get to work and I enjoy my commute. I can live with a few minutes delay now and then – more time to read a book or catch up on Netflix. I like the ‘me’ time.

But that all changed last week when I hopped on my usual train at Surbiton, expecting to reach London Waterloo in 20 minutes or so… how wrong I was.

Little did I know I was about to be caught up in an ordeal that one passenger would dub the South Western Hunger Games.

Held at a red signal

We were near the end of the journey when we heard the dreaded ‘red signal’ announcement. You never know how long one of these will last, and it wasn’t until 20 minutes later we got our first announcement from the driver; there was ‘a problem’ that would be resolved ‘quickly’ and we’d be back on the move ‘shortly’.

He was right to be ambiguous – the train completely lost power not long after that. No more tannoy announcements, no air conditioning, no ventilation. Not even the ability to flush the toilets.

As the time rolled by people began to sit on the dirty floor, desperate to get off their feet. The lack of ventilation was causing some to feel light-headed – there was a pregnant woman looking ever more flustered.

Many people had now started running their phone batteries into the ground trying to find answers, while some even phoned South Western’s customer services.

Should we pull the emergency lever?

Hours into the delay, and people were now craving any form of ventilation. A discussion broke out about whether or not we should open the doors via the emergency lever. But we were right in the middle of the tracks – it clearly wouldn’t be safe.

Not only that, but one passenger said they worked for Network Rail, and that even though we’d been stuck for more than two hours, opening the doors would result in an £80 fine.

The situation was becoming more tense, and a group of passengers formed to locate the guard, who it turned out knew as little as we did.

Twitter speculation

By now, the toilet had actually started to overflow. People were becoming increasingly more desperate and, with no information, had no idea how long this would carry on for.

With some passengers reading tweets out loud to update everyone, there was perhaps some light at the end of the tunnel:

Was the end in sight? When the power finally came back on, the entire carriage cheered. The train then made an impromptu stop to allow people off who just couldn’t stand it any longer.

I was fortunate to be one of the first off the train at Waterloo, where we were greeted with staff handing out delay repay forms and water. It was quite obvious there wouldn’t be enough for everyone, but at least it was something.

I just wanted the whole thing to be over, but now the onus is on me to get compensation by filling out the delay form – yet more of my time consumed.

This was my first experience of major ‘train pain’ – I’ll never take a standard journey for granted again. There was nothing anyone could do to help, seemingly no contingency plans and no refreshments onboard.

In the end I was more than three hours late for work. I accept that sometimes delays can happen, but I think commuters deserve a better managed experience when they do.

This is a guest post by Grace Kindred. All views expressed are Grace’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Which? is demanding a better rail service, with automatic compensation when things go wrong one of our key campaign calls.

We contacted South Western Railway for its comments on Grace’s story – check the comments to see their response.

How do you feel train companies manage situations like Grace’s? Are drivers and other members of staff being kept up to date well enough? Let us know your experiences below.


Thanks to Grace for writing about her experience for us. We contacted South Western Railway – here's its response in full:

A South Western Railway spokesperson said:

“We are very sorry for the disruption and severe delays to passenger journeys on Tuesday 12 February. This was caused by a piece of damaged equipment from a train which came into contact with the third rail, causing the electricity supply to fail.

“Specialist teams were able to re-charge the line shortly after 11.30am so that it was safe for our trains to run through the affected area.

“We received excellent feedback from customers about the Guard on board the train and we are pleased that he managed to keep everyone up to date and reassure people in very testing circumstances. Our station staff met customers arriving into Waterloo to help with compensation requests and provide extra support and assistance.

“We will be introducing automated delay repay in the Spring which will make claiming compensation in future much easier for SWR customers.”

The crux of this post is that for several hours people were put into a state of discomfort. Perhaps the mechanical failure could not have been avoided, but to have no toilet facilities and to have no ventilation amounts to personal harm. There was/is no back up plan to sort out passenger trauma while they are imprisoned in the train and unable to function properly. That is almost criminal. If someone had been taken ill as a result of the stress and conditions, South Western Rail could have had a police investigation to contend with. ( Toilets could be made to make emergency deposits on the track, doors could open half way, battery fans could be installed to push air through the carriages. Emergency water should be on board. ) There is an inevitability of a breakdown now and then, this needs to be factored into the running procedures. What would have happened to Grace and her fellow travellers if this had occurred on a hot day in Summer?

Having been on a delayed SW Railway train in the heat of summer all I can say is I am forever grateful it was not rush hour and only lasted 30 minutes.

Train companies should recognise that for many people it is not just an inconvenience but could have serious consequences. I witnessed someone have a panic attack at the station once because of a delay and a lack of communication about what was happening. Thankfully there was a fellow passenger who was trained in mental health first aid.

If you open the doors, even by a small amount, the interlocking will prevent the train from moving.

It seems part of the sanding equipment, which deposits sand on the track to help trains get traction on slippery rails, became detached and landed on the conductor rail. The train was also seen to have oil and air leaks and it is thought it may have struck an object on the line. What that was and how it got there is all a matter of conjecture but vandalism cannot be ruled out.

New trains have to have containment tanks and aren’t allowed to deposit waste onto the tracks but you’d have thought a better arrangement for overflow would’ve been made than letting it back up into the toilet.

I know nothing about the design of trains, but surely the disconnection of power should allow essential services to be maintained on battery power. That would include emergency lighting, the pumps to transfer toilet waste to the holding tanks, public address and ventilation.

The railways knowingly run trains that are routinely overloaded. There is even an official term for it – PIXC: passengers in excess of capacity. On some routes it applies almost throughout the journey on peak services but mostly on the closing stages towards the destination. Accordingly there should be measures in place to cope with emergencies and disruption. As Vynor says, there will always be occasional situations like the one described by Grace when the trains cannot move for long periods and the passengers are effectively imprisoned inside the carriages which have no relief ventilation if the electrically powered air-conditioning stops wotking. Many of the commuter trains carrying hundreds of passengers into London everyday do not even have toilets and after even a short delay conditions can become extremely unpleasant – after all most passengers will have had their breakfast and something to drink and are expecting to arrive as normal in accordance with their regular routine.

Whether providing water in such situations is a good idea I am not sure but as the delay goes beyond one hour refreshment becomes more necessary. London Underground advises passengers to carry a bottle of water and many commuters do so. The most necessary form of relief is ventilation and in carriages that are virtually hermetically sealed there ought to be a mechanical system for opening emergency ventilators in the roof and at floor level to enable some air to flow through.

Where there are toilets on board there should either be an overflow system to allow liquid waste to transfer to the tracks or into a holding tank as suggested by Wavechange. The toilet floor could also be designed with a drain to prevent flooding. If the flushing system is electrically driven then there needs to be a mechanical override for use in an emergency.

Luckily, there was a guard or conductor on Grace’s train but many commuter trains do not have a second operative on board, and even where they do the person might not have access to all the coaches in the train if it is made up of separate sets. I think there should always be an additional member of staff on a train and one per set in the case of multiple units. It strikes me that if a train requires such a formation for the number of passengers carried then the money must surely be there to pay for the staffing required for safety and passenger assistance purposes.

The question now is what happens next. Is the Office of Rail and Road going to investigate this incident and make recommendations for emergency arrangements? Is Passenger Focus going to make representations to the train operating companies? Is the Rail Delivery Group going to lay down new standards of ‘customer care’? Is the Department for Transport going to upgrade the specifications for train carriages and include appropriate clauses in future franchises? Is the Department going to coordinate a cross-industry response and implementation plan? Is Which? going to take this forward . . . or leave it in a siding?

I thought that the dumping of sewage on to railway tracks had ended years ago but we seem to have been on the slow train in the right direction: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/oct/10/train-toilets-to-no-longer-empty-on-to-tracks

I might have been the one who opened the door for ventilation in Grace’s carriage.

Morning John. We’ve been campaigning for a better rail service for years, with constant overcrowding and hideous train conditions part of that campaign:


By encouraging people like Grace to share their stories with us we, along with the 117,000+ people who have signed our campaign, are able to put more pressure on the DfT and the private rail companies to improve things. While compensation is something we’ve worked to improve as a more short-term win, the overall improvement of the service is what we’re aiming for in the long term.

Thank you, George. I fully appreciate what Which? is doing, but nothing much seems to change. I am not criticising Which?, just wondering. It was good to have a real-life story to comment on – it enables us to focus on a microcosm of a major industry or service.

Has the Secretary of State been invited to attend a meeting at Which? HQ for an update on all these issues and to give a progress report? I had an opportunity to speak to him directly some months ago and reminded him of some of the outstanding concerns in our area but there was little positive response. The wheels of the DfT grind exceeding slow . . .

The dumping of raw sewage certainly still occurs on the Norwich-London line. Some people discharge the toilet while the train is in a station and the deposit, complete with railway-grade tissue, remains on the ballast or the sleepers for some time until the elements cleanse it away. If people discharge the toilet while the train is at speed then the contents are sprayed over a long distance but partially atomised so the visual impact is less. New trains are due into service later this year that will have retention tanks. I imagine that the action of the tank’s contents during acceleration and braking of the train will render it more fluid for controlled emptying at the depot.

It would be useful if the whole problem of commuter trains were discussed. We have too few tracks, too many passengers at two relatively short times of the day. They are a big financial cost to the operators, it seems to me, and will always be liablet to disruption and overcrowding. We simply cannot continue putting more and more passengers onto those services that cannot handle them, even with Crossrail in London.

How do we deal with commuting in future? Do we pour even more money into a few railways? Build even more roads for car, bus and coach commuters? How do we deal with rush hour town traffic?

I think we need to look beyond the present and look at more sensible solutions. One is to provide affordable social housing (it used to be called council housing, didn’t it?) in major cities so fewer people need to commute. Another is to move jobs out of town to nearer where people live. A third would be to stagger working hours to spread the rush hour(s) over a longer period. But i do not see we can continue as we are.

The final flush on train toilets that empty their contents directly on to Britain’s tracks will be pulled in 2019, rail bosses and ministers have promised.

A combination of new trains and retrofitting old stock with modern, holding-tank toilets will end the dumping of raw sewage on the railways.

according to the Guardian 10.10.2017

Not pleasant to have raw sewage on the tracks for the maintenance crews, and not nice when it accumulates on the underside of rolling stock for those at the depots.

Completely understand John. As a commuter myself, I’m as frustrated at the lack of change in the industry as anyone. I’ve been very vocal in my criticisms of rail companies – I’ve said before I could speak at length about problems (customer service, comms etc) without even mentioning the trains themselves.

In the past few years Which? has achieved some good campaign wins – we’ve forced through 15 minute delay repay , as well as helped get the Rail Ombudsman up and running. But of course, those two things wouldn’t be as necessary if the railway worked efficiently.

Our campaigns team do have discussions with the DfT and I believe have engaged with Chris Grayling, but I’ll invite one of the team to elaborate on that. I do know for a fact though that we work with the rail ministers – when Paul Maynard was in the position we worked with him directly on our campaign asks, including 15 minute delay repay.

Crossrail was due to open in Dec ’18. In Aug ’18 it was disclosed that it would be another year before it opened. How on earth those in “authority” could not know of such a delay shows either incompetence or, more likely, deceit.

Thirdly, the decisions made by you, TfL and the Government to hide from the public the growing concerns about the Crossrail delivery schedule. This is most apparent in the statement the Rail Minister made to Parliament on 24 July and in the discussion at the TfL Board on 25 July. At this time, it was clearly very well established that Crossrail was not likely to meet the December opening date, even if a new date had not yet been confirmed. By concealing this, you and the Government turned both Parliament and the TfL Board – crucial forums for scrutinising Crossrail in public – into little more than theatrical performances.
Letter from Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM, Chair of the Transport Committee London Assembly 3/10/18 to the Mayor.

If this is correct then until we get honest people running these projects, not afraid to give the facts, not afraid to put real timescales on projects, then whatever discussions we have with the powers-that-be may not count for a lot.

Sadly that is true, Malcolm. There has been a dispute going on – I think Private Eye has referred to it – over who knew what and when. I watched a two-part documentary on BBC2 about the completion of Crossrail and it was quite obvious to an inexpert eye well before the eventual announcement of postponement that the system was far from ready. Only a third of the test runs had been carried out [none of the demanding and critical ones to confirm safe running of many trains in both directions simultaneously], a number of major stations were nowhere near complete [platform doors and escalators only then being installed, platforms surfaces, signage, and permanent lighting still not in place], and driver training was still at an early stage, so how it could be imagined that the first services through the underground section could start in December 2018 I don’t know. It looks as though there has been both incompetence in programme management and top management/political deceit in refusing to admit the problems.

Because the construction client organisation had been going on continuously throughout the build about how they were bringing it in “on time and on budget”, they could not face the reality that the programme had slipped badly to the right. In itself that is not surprising on such a massive project and is excusable, but the fact that the delay is likely to be a year or more since the forecast completion date shows how false was the data that the management were dealing with and passing up to the directors & CEO, the Mayor’s Office and the GLA. Crossrail even went so far as to dismantle some of the expert teams supervising and managing elements of the construction operation and have had to re-hire specialists in order to oversee completion and sign off the works.

The failure to open as planned will cost Transport for London vast amounts of lost revenue. The Mayor had pledged not to raise public transport fares on his watch but there will be a big hole in his budget because there is a limit to what other expenditure they can stop or curtail without incurring prohibitive penalties.

When it finally arrives, all tested and trialled, Crossrail – or the Elizabeth line as it will be known – will be a fabulous addition to the capital’s and the nation’s infrastructure. By all appearances it is being built to a very high standard and will transform travel across London. I just hope HM The Queen will be available to open it. Perhaps concerns around that contributed to an over-ambitious timetable.

It may be a fabulous addition to the capital’s infrastructure but I doubt most of the nation will benefit and the word “fabulous” could yet prove particularly apt, given it’s now almost three quarters of a billion over budget and subject to a lengthy delay. But I suppose major infrastructure projects do seem to have a habit of coming in way above budget. Wonder if the reverse is ever true?

I think it will help people from all parts of the UK who come into or need to go through London. It will take pressure off the existing system and for many it will provide quicker links to major destinations in and around the capital. Interchanging from the main lines to the Underground at stations like Liverpool Street and Paddington is time-consuming and awkward at present. Changing trains further out at stations like Stratford and Ealing Broadway could be simpler and faster despite the additional stops. It will mainly benefit east-west journeys but there will be an interchange with Thameslink at Farringdon to provide north-south connections. Convenience will largely depend on how the other routes adapt their timetables, stopping patterns and connections to take advantage of the new lines. I expect even with the budget over-run the benefit-cost ratio is still favourable.

Crossrail connects Reading in Berkshire to Shenfield in Essex – 58m – and LHR to Abbey Wood – 29m so includes more than just the capital. A good deal of the cost is being met by TfL, London business rates, development over sites and London development levy.

I find it implausible that “opening the doors would result in an £80 fine“. The penalty is for improper use. If passengers’ health is suffering through lack of oxygen and/or the temperature being too high, then it would be a proper use to use the emergency lever to open the door so that passengers can escape the dangerous conditions.

I’m not sure that it is possible for passengers to open the sliding doors on modern trains. I haven’t seen an emergency lever or anything to get a grip on to ease the doors apart. Perhaps the application of brute force would do it but it would be extremely hazardous for passengers to jump down onto the tracks, especially where there is third rail electrification. That could just prolong the delay.

There is usually a safety glass window in each carriage which could be broken for ventilation; a hammer should also be present. I wonder if any of the passengers trapped on the train read the emergency procedures notice that was displayed and found anything useful in it.

I think the £80 fine is for improper use of the emergency brake handle which brings the train to a halt but does not release the doors. Only the driver or guard/conductor can do that.

I expect if they could have done so the train operator would have brought a diesel-engined or locomotive-hauled train alongside to detrain the passengers on Grace’s train but the approach tracks were probably occupied by stalled trains since the incident happened in the rush hour.

I would suggest that the Rail Safety and Standards Board and Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate should be investigating and developing processes and procedures for such emergencies.

Each door shall be provided with an internal emergency egress device to enable the door to be unlocked and opened individually from inside the vehicle, irrespective of the condition of vehicle power supplies. The emergency egress device shall be operable at any time however, the door shall only be capable of being opened when the vehicle speed in less than 5 km/h. The emergency egress device shall be clearly labelled, indicating its method of operation.. From: https://www.rssb.co.uk/rgs/standards/GMRT2473%20Iss%202.pdf

As stated in this document, it has been superseded, though the replacement does not provide the same admirably clear and concise information. I very much doubt that passengers would be unable to open the doors of a stationary train in an emergency.

It certainly would be dangerous for passengers to leave the train but opening the door would provide some ventilation.

I have seen such a facility on slam-door trains [which are being superseded by the end of this year] but not noticed an emergency egress device on sliding door stock.

I am surprised that the RSSB accepts that passenger-activated egress onto the track should be allowed, especially where there is an electric current rail alongside one of the running rails or where there is a parallel track on which trains could continue to run. The distance between the rails on parallel tracks is commonly referred to as the ‘six-foot’ and the passing distance between the bodysides of two trains is only about two feet. It would be dangerous to get out in such a position although it might be less dangerous on the opposite side of the carriage depending on the situation and whether or not the electric current rail was on that side of the train [its position varies according to the track geometry and other engineering factors] but there could be power cables present even if there was no current rail. On lines close to termini there are often four or more tracks adding to the hazards. Even on non-electrified lines and on lines with overhead electrification there are still many hazards and it is a surprisingly big drop down onto the ballast. Unsupervised egress can never be safe but in an emergency like a fire or terrorist incident the risk could be acceptable [i.e. as low as reasonably practicable in the circumstances].

The last slam door stock was taken out of mainline service in 2005, a pair of Class 121 “Bubble Cars” staggered on with Chiltern until 2017 but they’d been retro-fitted with central locking.

Sliding door trains have an emergency release either to one side or above the doors. I’m not aware of any £80 fine for improper use. In the circumstances I might’ve risked it. The fine for improper use of the emergency stop lever is, I think, £200.

Passengers self evacuating from a train is recognised as dangerous in the rail industry but as you say there are some circumstances where it’s unavoidable.

Thank you, Phil. I can assure you that slam door carriages are still running on the Norwich to London Liverpool Street inter-city service and will be for some months yet. They have electrical central door locking but while the train is in a station and the locking is released passengers can open them freely and close them by slamming them shut. The door locking is re-engaged before departure.

To open the doors from the inside when the locks have been released passengers have to lower the drop light and lean out of the carriage to turn the door lever in a downward direction until the latch opens. Many people are physically incapable of reaching down in that fashion and will be heartily glad to see the end of those carriages.

It is interesting that in the incident reported by Grace nobody on the train seemed to be aware that there was an emergency door release facility that could have provided ventilation. Perhaps the train was so packed it was impossible to operate it. Or maybe there was a deficiency in the clear labelling requirement.

The Norwich-London trains use the BR Mk 3 carriages which weren’t included in the “slam door” category as they were fitted with central locking which prevents the doors being opened until the train is at a stand. Frequent accidents were caused by passengers trying to alight whilst the train was still moving. It was also the old slam door stock’s lack of crashworthiness shown in the Clapham accident that contributed to their condemnation. This is not a problem with the Mk 3s.

Passengers on Grace’s train did discuss opening the doors using the emergency lever but decided against it. It would’ve prevented the train from moving again once the power was restored.

Thanks, Phil. I should have read the article again before saying the passengers were not aware there was am emergency door release facility., but it wasn’t clear whether what they were contemplating was (a) using the emergency brake handle [which would not have opened the doors but would have stopped the train from moving before the air pressure level in the braking system was back to normal], or (b) using the emergency passenger egress device adjacent to the doors [which would have allowed the train to proceed once the device had been reset and all the doors had been closed again].

This whole situation would certainly bear further investigation and clear guidance to train crew and passengers.

It emphasises the need to have at least one additional safety-qualified staff member on each train as it is unrealistic to expect the driver to leave the cab in the middle of an incident.

…………….This unacceptable disruption is continuing to have devastating consequences on people’s lives – with passengers telling Which? intolerable train journeys have led them to quit work, left them unable to visit sick relatives or struggling with the impact on their physical and mental health.

The focus is continually on those who travel by train. What about the millions who travel by road, either using their car, bus or coach, and face slow daily journeys and disruption when travelling too and from work?

Commuting has always been an unpredictable experience because there are too many people using an increasingly overloaded transport system. While there undoubtedly are extra problems in particular areas for particular reasons, I doubt they will ever make commuting a reliable and comfortable experience for many. In my view only a gradual, but radical approach, to our relationship with work and home will help solve the problem.

Perhaps we should have a Convo to discuss ways of reducing our dependence on these forms of transport. Most discussion focuses on improving public transport and roads for the use of cars, but maybe we need to pay more attention to making roads safe for cyclists.

From the intro: “The situation was becoming more tense, and a group of passengers formed to locate the guard, who it turned out knew as little as we did.

From SWR: “We received excellent feedback from customers about the Guard on board the train and we are pleased that he managed to keep everyone up to date and reassure people in very testing circumstances.”

These accounts seem conflicting. Perhaps SWR could provide the evidence to back their statement.

What seems, in hindsight, one problem here is that no one may have estimated a realistic time for the problem to be investigated and resolved. They might then have informed affected trains (I presume there were more than just this one? Were complaints received from passengers on the others?). As I assume track maintenance staff were despatched to check the stretch of line, locate and decide how to clear the fault, this would likely be known to take time.

If the ventilation conditions in the carriages were becoming intolerable then I would have expected the guard to open doors, or I would have done it myself – I doubt any fine would have been imposed under the circumstances. Then post responsible passengers by the doors for safety. There are times when we have to use our own resources and not rely on someone else.

Many years ago, in a long hot summer, the crowded underground train I was in came to a halt in the tunnel between stations for about 20 minutes, so the forced ventilation from the train movement ceased. Temperatures and anxiety gradually increased and I was most relieved when the train finally moved. I don’t know what could have been done – even opening the doors in a confined tunnel would have helped but little.

There was an incident some years ago where a tube train was stuck in a tunnel and the passengers resorted to smashing all the windows.

Obviously having a toilet that overflows when the power goes off is unacceptable. Do however spare a thought for the millions of commuters who are still provided with trains with no toilets; those on SWR are due to be replaced in a year or so with 90 new trains, which may be an improvement … provided the toilets doen’t get vandalised and locked out of use, as I believe has happened with depressing frequency on other routes.

On my line into Waterloo, which has journeys of nearly an hour, the normal service since 1997 has consisted only of BR-era trains without toilets. Hardly acceptable; my worst experience was a journey that took over two and a half hours due to a breakdown on the line ahead.

I cannot remember when I last needed to use a toilet in a train, but on a local journey last week I did investigate and it seems that sewage is discharged on to the track. It’s very disappointing that this is still allowed in the 21st century. I will go back to avoiding using the toilets whenever possible.

Thankfully the trains were on time on both the outward and return journeys and there was no shortage of seats. It’s good to be able to travel off-peak.

As I posted earlier:
“The final flush on train toilets that empty their contents directly on to Britain’s tracks will be pulled in 2019, rail bosses and ministers have promised.
A combination of new trains and retrofitting old stock with modern, holding-tank toilets will end the dumping of raw sewage on the railways.”

according to the Guardian 10.10.2017
I wonder if they are running to time?

That is from the article I provided a link to near the start of this Convo. I had a quick look for more recent information but did not find anything useful.

Not all the new trains will have toilets but those that do will have to have retention tanks.

It is not unusual to see passengers on trains without toilets drinking large beakers of tea or coffee. This is asking for trouble if there is a prolonged delay.