Ministers on Sunday demanded the rail industry urgently set out a plan to restore services on some of the UK’s busiest intercity lines, amid the prospect of prolonged disruption after cracks were found on some high-speed trains.
More than 150 trains built by Japan’s Hitachi were taken out of service for checks on Saturday, causing severe disruption through the weekend on key train services including between London and the west of England and Scotland.
The “vast majority” of Great Western Railway’s intercity fleet, and a significant number of London North East Railway and TransPennine Express trains were affected, the Department for Transport said.
GWR and LNER, two of the UK’s busiest operators, were advising customers not to attempt to make long-distance trips on Sunday, but TransPennine Express said services had returned to normal.
Hitachi said routine inspections had found cracks underneath the carriages of some of its Class 800 trains, which were pulled from service for engineers to inspect them.
While some trains have been restored to service, “disruption is likely for a prolonged period”, said rail minister Chris Heaton Harris on Saturday.
On Sunday he told train operating companies to set out a strategy to minimise the disruption, and Hitachi to deliver a safety inspection plan.
“Our focus is to ensure trains are returned to service as quickly as possible, once they are fully approved as safe. Only then can we start to rebuild a reliable and punctual timetable for passengers,” Heaton Harris said.
A total of 183 trains were taken out of service and disruption was expected for a “few days”, Robert Nisbet, an executive at the Rail Delivery Group, a trade body that represents the companies that operate the UK’s trains told the BBC on Sunday.
The Class 800 trains, which are mainly electric but can also run on diesel, have become the backbone of many of the UK’s long distance rail lines over the past five years.
The disruption is a blow to Hitachi’s rail business, which manufactured the class 800 trains in County Durham.
The Japanese conglomerate apologised to passengers and operators of its trains and said some had been cleared to resume services.
“We are working as quickly and safely as possible to investigate the issue across the remainder of the fleet,” it added.
The disruption comes as people have begun to use the railways again in much greater numbers as coronavirus lockdown restrictions ease across the UK.
Passenger numbers have consistently hit more than 30 per cent of normal levels over the past few weeks, after collapsing to as low as 5 per cent last year.
Ministers have spent more than £10bn bailing out the train network over the past year, and are finalising plans for significant reform including replacing the rail franchise model with a new system where operators will be paid a fixed fee for running services.
The Campaign for Better Transport, a passenger lobby group, said the disruption this weekend “shows how vital a smooth running rail network is in keeping the country moving”.
“The issue with these trains must be urgently addressed, along with other barriers to people returning to the railways, including introducing more flexible season tickets,” it added.