How a single train can cripple an entire network

This morning a train failed between two main stations, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks. Although this happened just before 8am it caused chaos across the entire southern half of the network which was felt well into the late evening.

The following has been taken from the uk.railway newsgroup as it’s one of the best accounts I’ve seen for any failure from someone who must be someone who works on the Railway.

First of all the unit was on the up line, the train involved being 06.39 Ore – Cannon St.

It depends what you mean by “the rescue” train. When the Ore service came to a stand (formed 12 coach 375) very quickly the following 07.40 Tunbridge Wells – Charing Cross (formed 10 coach Networker) was at a stand behind it at Hildenborough. This had to be moved back first before any rescue train could go to the passengers. There was a nearby access point (from a public road bridge) however the gate was chained out of use owing to the access steps being in poor condition. This meant that detraining was out of the question. To my mind trying to arrange road transport to meet somewhere in the region of 750 – 800 people would have been a logistical nightmare.

So the decision was made to get a train up behind to try and push/rescue the passengers. The Tunbridge Wells train was moved back wrong line to Tonbridge (a series of procedures to follow, as not a signalled move), and an additional delay while trains were emptied at Tonbridge to (1) provide a platform for the Tunbridge Wells train to come back into and (2) supply an assisting train. The assisting train needed to be emptied, otherwise its easy to get two train loads of people stuck in the middle of nowhere.

While this was going on the driver was in touch with various technical people receiving assistance, but the fault appears to have caused the whole 12 coach train to have become disabled. There was also a possibility of an attaching train having the fault transferring. About 09.40 the front and rear units got power and there was hope of limping the train forward to Sevenoaks, but this was scuppered when the brakes would not then release.

During this time an empty 12 coach train was brought up to Hildenborough and at 10.00 went onto the back of the failed train to remove the passengers. By shortly after 10.00, the evacuation of the failed train was underway, however it required 750 – 800 people to walk though one gangway connection into the other train which had arrived behind. As can be imagined this took time, but by 11.00 the passengers were transfered and the rescue train was ready to move back to Tonbridge, once authorization for the wrong line move was obtained.

During this time a crew from GBRf were found to go to Hoo Jn and pick up and engine there, and this then started making its way over towards Sevenoaks. The fitters were on site as well, but despite numerous efforts unable to get the train to come back to life.

There were several false dawns when the staff on site believed they had fixed the faults, only for something else to then occur.

During this time only a limited amount of trains could go via Redhill (Network Rail Sussex zone stated not more than one per hour to be diverted) and this was also hindered by Networkers not being cleared to run via Redhill, and also the limited crew knowledge (only Tonbridge and Hastings crews sign the route via Redhill). All other trains were having to use the down line in both directions, and owing to the nature of the signalling, a maximum of one train every 15 minutes could go up the down line (assuming of course that nothing is actually coming the other way).

The rescue engine from Hoo Jn got to the failure at around 13.00, and was attached to haul the errant train away. Owing to the different couplings on loco and units, this meant the movement back to Tonbridge could only go at a maximum of 5mph. The wrong line move commenced at 13.13, and was back in clear at Tonbridge by 13.54, at which time the up line could be used for the first time since 07.45 this morning.

During this time disruption spread out over a vast area due to train crews in the wrong place, not helped by the complexity of the crew workings. The intricate nature of the crew working is something that South Eastern are aware of, but have so far chosen not to address, for whatever reason.

In addition the supervision of train crew has been drastically reduced, instead of each depot having its own Train Crew Supervisor, they are now based at Orpington and Ashford for the whole county (so one person deals with seven depots instead of one). I understand train crew find it difficult to contact these staff, as needless to say the phone is constantly busy due to the vastly increased workload. This is another issue that I believe South Eastern are aware of.

The Gene Genie.

The original posts are available here: and

Thanks to @TimJWatts for sending those links to #southeastern on twitter.

Author: petermount1

Prolific Open Source developer who also works in the online gaming industry during the day. Develops in Java, Go, Python & any other language as necessary. Still develops on retro machines like BBC Micro & Amiga A1200

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