Disruption at London Euston: what happened and why it took so long

James Dean, managing director of West Coast Mainline South route

Firstly, I’m truly sorry to Euston passengers who were impacted by delays and cancellations over the past few days, caused by damaged overhead electric wires at South Kenton.

Yesterday, we hoped to reopen the railway before the first service was set to leave Euston. What was really frustrating was the surprise nature of the issues we faced in the early hours of yesterday morning. They took us by surprise. They took you, our passengers, by surprise. I’m gutted to have let you down.

I feel I owe you, the people we exist to serve, an explanation. An open and honest run-down on what happened and what my colleagues and I have done to fix things.

What happened?

On Saturday (7 March, 1:39pm) a train travelling at 125mph brought down 1,000 metres of overhead wires in the South Kenton area in Wembley, northwest London.

The train’s pantograph (the point of contact from the train to the electric wires) caught a bit of wire that was out of place. As it takes time for a train travelling at that speed to stop, it pulled a 1km stretch of wire down.

A full investigation is still under way to find out the cause of this unwanted pantograph contact.

But my immediate goal is to get passengers safely moving again. The West Coast main line is the busiest mixed-use (passenger and freight) in Europe. Any disruption is bad. But a major problem like this is really bad for the people we serve.

What did we do next?

This line (one out of six in total) had to be closed and the electricity turned off due to the extensive damage. Specialist teams and equipment are needed to fix damage like this. This includes a wiring train of which there are only a handful in the country. In reality we needed 16 hours non-stop to do the work but we needed to only disrupt the railway overnight.

Immediately my teams worked to pull together the right people and kit to fix it but unfortunately the earliest we could do this was Sunday night (8 March). We had to block all six lines initially, so night-time was the least bad time to do this work.

I spoke with my colleagues at Southern Rail, Avanti, London Overground, Caledonian Sleeper and London North Western Railway to look at how, collectively, we could keep passengers moving on alternative lines. We agreed a reduced timetable and worked together to inform passengers of the upcoming disruption.

What was done to fix it?

Work took place on Sunday night into Monday morning (9pm – 6am). Our teams removed the damaged 1km of wire and installed 1km of new wire. This allowed us to reopen the line on Monday morning to diesel trains, freeing up space so the other electrified lines could run electric trains on Monday.

Further work needed to take place on Monday night into Tuesday morning (9pm – 6am) to install a complex assembly called a neutral section which insulates two feeder stations from each other and install more equipment whilst checking the alignment of the new overhead wires to fully reopen the line.

Overhead lines need to be at specific heights from the rail to ensure consistent electrical contact. They are also installed with a stagger or zig zag alignment to ensure an even wear across the pantograph of the train. This is a complex procedure for 1km of wire.

Why wasn’t it finished, as planned, overnight on Monday?

While we worked on the overhead wires on Monday night, the team found further damage to the supporting structures outside of the 1km stretch. Specifically this was the equipment around the neutral section.

Back in 2002, then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfled uttered his famous line on “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” It was in the small hours of Tuesday morning that I realised we’d just uncovered the latter. This is not an excuse. We must do better in future. And we will. But I hope it gives you an insight into what was happening out there in the cold and dark as we discovered more damage than had previously been detected.

My heart sank. We needed to act immediately. The work needed to fix the other damaged equipment delayed the job. And, infuriatingly, this meant we disrupted passengers again on Tuesday morning.

At 3:30am I was faced with two main choices:

Complete as much work as possible so the line could reopen – electrically charged but with trains lowering the pantograph under the affected area and coasting underneath. We wouldn’t be able to do this until 12noon due to the time needed to remove the equipment used last night to fix the other damage.

Keep the line closed with some of the equipment on site so we can easily repair the damage tonight.

Neither of those were ideal because I knew passengers still wouldn’t get the full service they deserve.

To cite Rumsfeld again, if we’d known the full extent of the overhead wire damage, I would have told passengers and train companies that this was going to take longer to fix.

But we didn’t know what we didn’t know until we knew – and by then it was too late to avoid impacting you further.

For that, I am truly sorry.

When did the line reopen?

Our engineers were back on site last night (9pm – 6am) to complete our repairs so the line could reopen before services started this morning.

I’d like to thank all passengers who have had to bear with us during this issue.

James.

Update: This post was originally published on 10 March 2020. It has been updated to reflect the line reopening.