Double trouble for travellers

JON WELCH Thousands of travellers endured a day of disruption today (Friday) as fallen cables caused chaos on the railway and a driver's strike brought bus services to a standstill.

JON WELCH

Thousands of travellers endured a day of disruption today (Friday) as fallen cables caused chaos on the railway and a driver's strike brought bus services to a standstill.

An overhead cable falling on to the main London to Norwich line caused 24 hours of disruption with many trains cancelled and those that were still running crammed with passengers.

Services began to return to normal from 3.15pm, but a rail pressure group warned of further problems until overhead cables on the line are replaced.

Peter Lawrence, president of Norwich-based Rail Future, described the disruption as “a darn nuisance”. He said: “The overhead equipment is worn out between Liverpool Street and Chelmsford. It's due to be replaced by 2009.”

The £50 million programme to replace the overhead cables is due to begin at Christmas.

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“That's going to cause further disruption but it's long overdue - it should have been done some time ago,” said Mr Lawrence. “The sooner the work is carried out, the better but until such time as the work is completed passengers are going to be inconvenienced. Successive governments have not treated the railways seriously and we're now paying for it.”

In Norwich, thousands of people had to take alternative transport to work as up to 250 First Eastern Counties bus drivers walked out in a pay dispute.

All First Eastern Counties services in Norwich, with the exception of the contract park-and-ride services, were affected by the strike, called by the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU).

Bosses had hoped the strike could be averted but talks with the union broke down. However, a strike planned for next Wednesday has been called off following fresh talks between the company and the union. Both parties will meet arbitration service ACAS next week in an attempt to resolve the dispute, which relates to last year's pay settlement.

Neither side has been willing to reveal the terms on offer, but a letter to drivers seen by the EDP shows that First Eastern Counties plans to replace the four existing pay grades with a single hourly rate of £7.95, bringing the average weekly wage for a driver to £326.

While that will increase the wages of many drivers, some will be worse off and the company has said it is willing to discuss how they could be compensated.

The company is also proposing to increase the maximum driving spell from four-and-a-half to five hours.

The dispute meant good business for taxi companies, however. City firm ABC said its drivers had been working “flat out” all day from 6am.

On the railway, the disruption was caused when stretch of overhead cable fell on to the northbound track of the London Liverpool Street to Norwich line at Ingatestone, Essex, at 3.25pm on Thursday afternoon.

Many services were cancelled, while others were badly delayed. Train operator One said delays were averaging 90 minutes on Thursday night, and 15 minutes this morning.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb was among the passengers affected. He caught the 10.30pm London to Norwich train on Thursday night, which arrived at its destination an hour late. “I have written to Network Rail saying this is intolerable and that we can't continue to have rail services of this standard,” he said.

Network Rail said the cause of the fault was not known. An investigation is under way, with one possibility that the cable was damaged by a train.

Jonathan Denby, corporate communication manager for One Anglia, said the cables had come down at the worst possible place, on a busy stretch of line with only two tracks.

“We're sorry for the disruption passengers have experienced in the past 24 hours,” he said. “We did everything we could to minimise the impact, but it did result in crowded and delayed journeys home. We have worked hard in partnership with Network Rail to restore things today.”