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Answers sought over rail chaos

Network Rail today said it is "deeply sorry" after thousands of passengers were hit by travel chaos because of over-running engineering works.

Police had to be brought in to control crowds left stranded as trains in and out of two of London's busiest rail hubs were cancelled.

Passengers branded the debacle a "disgrace" while Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has demanded answers from rail bosses.

And the railway watchdog, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), said it is launching an investigation into the disruption.

As pressure mounted on Network Rail, Robin Gisby, managing director of network operations, apologised for the mayhem.

He said: "I'm deeply sorry for the delays, upset and upheaval caused today to passengers impacted by our overrunning improvement work outside King's Cross.

"We've had an army of 11,000 engineers out over Christmas Day and Boxing Day at 2,000 locations nationwide. Over 90% have been completed and handed back to-time but I realise this is no consolation for the thousands affected today."

He said Network Rail will pay compensation to train operators, but would not be drawn on whether affected customers will be in line for pay-outs.

His comments came after a day where thousands of travellers were hit by delays and cancellations, or crammed into "dangerously overcrowded" carriages.

Paddington, one of west London's busiest stations, was closed for much of the day as trains were cancelled or delayed.

While King's Cross' normally busy concourse was almost deserted as trains were scrapped or redirected to Finsbury Park, a far smaller station in north London.

But Finsbury Park was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of passengers and also temporarily closed, leaving passengers queuing in the freezing cold for around two hours.

Police had to be brought in to deal with the crowds, which were ten-people deep and stretched some 300 metres along the side of the station along Seven Sisters Road.

And metal barriers were also erected to avoid people getting crushed.

George Hallam, a semi-retired economics lecturer from Lewisham, was among the crowds waiting to get on a train at Finsbury Park.

He said: "Any civil engineering contractor would have realised probably weeks ago that they were going to overrun and they must have realised they would be fined.

"They could have solved that by putting on more resources, more people, more machines - but if the cost of that is more than the fine then they would choose to pay the fine."

He added: "There are a lot of vulnerable people here. My mother-in-law is 94, we managed to get her into a taxi some time ago. But the train companies ought to be arranging coaches, not taxis."

Passengers travelling with East Coast, First Hull Trains, Grand Central and Great Northern face major delays on many services, Network Rail said.

Great Western trains were also hit as Paddington was closed for much of the day because of over-running works and signal problems.

Lindesay Irvine, 45, a journalist, said he has been stuck on a "dangerously overcrowded" train after two train-loads of people, one from Bristol and one from Cornwall, were merged into one.

Mr Irvine, who is travelling to London after spending Christmas with family in Bristol, said: "It is dangerously overcrowded. In health and safety terms this must be well against the law.

"There is not an inch of room. At the last station people tried to get on but couldn't. One person has been taken ill on the train.

"There is no room, no information and no apology. It is unacceptable. The engineering works have over-run from Christmas but they have had plenty of time to prepare.

"My Christmas in Bristol was close to perfect. And now thanks to Great Western I've been left very angry at the end of my Christmas break."

Fellow passenger Lynda Pollard, 62, said: "It is packed. You have got to fight your way through to the bathroom. It is so crowded you can barely move. Why have they not laid coaches on?

"The overcrowding is horrendous. There is no way of getting any food or water. It is dreadful."

Announcing an investigation into the debacle, ORR said in a statement: "Network Rail, working with the rest of the industry, must learn lessons and prevent problems like this happening again.

"ORR is investigating overrunning works.

"We will also be reviewing the standard of passenger information during disruptions - with a focus on whether passengers have been adequately informed to make alternative arrangements to their journeys or claim compensation."

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: "The situation on the railways this weekend has been totally unacceptable.

"Passengers must be able to trust that vital engineering works on the rail network will be completed on time. Passengers deserve no less.

"I will be asking Network Rail to set out what went wrong and how they can learn lessons, but its priority must be to get services running into King's Cross as well as Paddington."

Network Rail said its engineers had " been working tirelessly to complete the track replacement work" but not all the planned works had been completed in time.

It said tickets will be valid for another two days and pledged to get to the bottom of why the engineering work was delayed.

A spokesman for East Coast, which operates trains in and out of King's Cross, said: "We apologise for the continued disruption to journeys today, after Network Rail engineering work north of London King's Cross station was not completed as planned."

They added: "Finsbury Park station was temporarily closed for a short period on police advice and to allow time for the backlog of passengers to be cleared. Every available East Coast resource is being made available to support our customers."

Network Rail said the engineering work near King's Cross was part of a £200 million Christmas investment programme, with most services expected to return to normal on January 5.

A First Great Western spokesman said: "We're sorry so many of our customers have been delayed, after Network Rail's engineering work in the London and Thames Valley area severely overran this morning.

"This ongoing work completely blocked access to and from London Paddington station until early this afternoon, as well as to our Old Oak Common depot, meaning we had to operate fewer trains than normal.

"Customers rely on us to get them to and from their loved ones over Christmas, and we are very disappointed that we have not been able to run our planned services because Network Rail didn't finish their work on time.

"The situation was not improved as Network Rail was unable to give us a reliable estimate for when the problems would be solved, which made it difficult for us to pass effective information onto customers despite having mobilised managers and volunteers at key stations on the network."

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "There will be thousands of passengers who have been left angry and frustrated by today's events. We have heard and seen passengers standing for hours on trains, locked outside stations and left to find out what to do by themselves.

"Passengers booked tickets and made travel plans based on the promises made by the industry. That trust has been broken today."

He called for a review into the disruption, adding: "In the meantime every single passenger affected should claim compensation. Send a clear message to the industry and make sure your voice is heard."

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