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Hell in a Southeastern commuter train stuck at Lewisham

I’ve heard so many conflicting accounts of what happened on Friday, many of them not entirely true and obviously orchestrated by Southeastern’s press team.  I thought I’d pen down what actually happened as it unfolded in-front of me from the point of view of the passenger.

The beginning

Friday was a pretty hectic day for me as it probably was for most other commuters to central London.  The journey in in the morning had been long and tiring due to Southeastern ceasing all Cannon Street trains to and from my home station of Eltham.  I completed my working day (unable to get away early due to starting a new job) and apprehensively made my way to London Bridge station.  To my surprise there was a train headed for Dartford via Bexleyheath (exactly what I wanted) just pulling in to London Bridge.  The platform had already reached dangerous levels of overcrowding though and I doubted I would be able to get near the train even if the door stopped right next to me.  As it turns out the door stopped nowhere near me and it wouldn’t have made any difference as the train was already at bursting point from the passengers at London Charing Cross boarding.  I remember that this was one of the older style trains that has smaller doorway section and more seating. (relevant later on)

There was then an announcement that another train for Dartford via Bexleyheath was to follow close behind (The 16:35). There was a bit of excitement as there was a platform change from 7 to 6 and a stampede as people braced themselves to get on. Sure enough this train came in about 5 minutes later, you could feel the collective sinking of hearts when all the passengers saw that this one was also bursting at the seams.  Somehow I managed to squeeze on and fit into a tiny space just inside the doorway.  Then more people piled in behind me and it started to get hard to breathe let alone move.  I kept telling myself this is only a 15 minute journey, I can survive these conditions for this small amount of time.  Little did I know what was coming.


The ill fated 16:35 from London Bridge had a few surprises in store for its passengers…

The ill fated 16:35 from London Bridge

Things seemed to be going well, the train was moving slowly but steadily at about 20MPH and I could just about see from the tiny piece of window that wasn’t obfuscated that we were nearing Lewisham station.  It was at this point that the train slowed to a gradual stop.  Everyone in my carriage began to groan, it had only been about 10 minutes but the extremely cramped conditions meant that people were forced into very uncomfortable positions.  We all just wanted to get off of the train, even at this point.  After a few minutes the driver made an announcement (I think his name was Luke).  He said that there was a problem with the train in front and due to this being an older model train (I suspect the one I just missed earlier) it was having trouble getting enough power to clear the station.  Until this train could clear the station the signalman kept the red light on.

Another 15 minutes passed and the driver made another announcement, the train in front should be able to move but it will be going very very slowly and as we were stuck behind it we would be following it the whole way.  People were getting a bit restless at this point and many started calling loved ones and updating them as to what was going on.  Others like me started looking at getting off at Lewisham and finding alternative routes home from there.  Another 30 minutes passed and the driver made another announcement, the train in front was in real trouble, it was completely stuck and could not go anywhere.  The other passengers and I all started to look at each other in despair, ‘ok where does that leave us’ one man commented.  We then had what felt like an eternity of silence and being extremely uncomfortable being bent into strange shapes to fit into the packed carriage.  Once the first hour had passed with no real hope of a resolution many of us started to realise that this is only going to get worse.

The situation worsens…

Time just kept passing by and as the 2nd hour on-board approached many of the ‘human’ problems that long haul trains are equipped to cope with started become of real concern.  I myself needed the toilet but was not in desperate need, others were getting quite upset about it and started to face the realisation that they will need to either find a bottle (which is obviously easier for a man) or face the humiliation of wetting yourself – or worse. After the second hour had passed the driver announced that there was no hope of getting the train in front moving due to the conductor rail being iced up.  Southeastern were going to cut the power to the line and actually de-ice the thing manually by hand!  There were lots of shouts and cries out at this point as we just wanted off of this train.  We should be being evacuated not waiting for Southeastern to make a half-arsed attempt at spraying some car de-icer on the train track.  Incidentally I want to make a note at this point of stating that the driver mentioned that our train would have been fine to plough through this problem and this was something the old trains (that should have been replaced a LONG time ago) suffered with.  I guess our expensive fares are better spent on Southeastern fat-cat bonuses rather than actual working trains – for their train business eh?

After this announcement we were again greeted with another 30 minutes of silence.  We were on the way to a 3rd hour in this horrendous situation, my calves were on fire from the awkward position i was standing in and the need for basic amenities like a toilet break or a drink were all I could think about.  I could here several people in the carriage crying and the smell of urine had become apparent.  I really felt for the elderly people on the carriage, people had given up their seats for them but they looked very uncomfortable to say the least.  An older lady I spoke to would not usually have made a trip like this, especially in this weather but had no choice as her granddaughter had just been rushed to Lewisham hospital.  This line for many is a vital artery into and out of the city for so many, it just feels so wrong that it is treated like an exploratory business venture for a greedy corporation – not the essential service that it is.  As Southeastern had cut the power to the line (so that they could de-ice it) we had no lighting and now heat.  The cold crept in incredibly fast and I along with several others around me were just amazed that we were in this situation.  We still hadn’t heard anything from Southeastern at this point about what was going on or how they were going to get us out of this mess.

And then all hell breaks loose

Almost nearing the 3rd hour and the driver apologises again sympathising with the horrible conditions behind him and how if it was up to him he would be leading us off of the train and up to the station platform, he also mentioned or pleaded with people not to pull the emergency door releases and jump off of the train as it would hold things up even more.  This is when some people in my carriage started to discuss the possibility of pulling the door release and jumping off of the train, walking down the track and walking out through the platform.  It was only talk but 3 hours in we started to wonder if we had been forgotten and were going to be here all night.  Most people’s legs had seized up and I’d lost the feeling in pretty much all my extremities.  The carriage was beginning to get very very cold without any heating and some of the older passengers were visibly shivering.

It was some of the younger passengers that pulled the door release.  A guy literally forced his way through the crowd of people and pulled the handle.  The small group clambered down off of the train to whatever was below.  (I had no idea, without lighting it was so dark it was impossible to see).  These were only kids making an impulsive move not commuters on their way home from work.  I could see however that people were watching on and wondering if this was a good idea.  The group used their phone lights to find a way out and it actually was a lot more daunting than they realised.  The track was sealed by high fences either side, the rails (which may have still been live in places) were covered by the snow, the track was perched atop of an icy slope either side and the only place to walk was on the track where oncoming trains would come.  This coupled with the threat of a thousands of pounds worth of fines from Southeastern for trespassing was enough for me to decided against such a move.  (I later read it takes a two day training course to learn how to not kill yourself being track-side)  The kids that had jumped down must have quickly realised the same as they clambered back on to the packed carriage.  Many of the other passengers were annoyed that they had done this as it was nearing a blizzard outside and now the doors were forced open – it was basically snowing inside.

Another announcement came from the driver, we all knew what he was going to say.  A passenger had pulled the emergency door release and this was going to slow down things a lot more.  We all stood their shivering, desperate for the toilet, hungry and many people were very upset.  The darkness offered its own problems, there was some form of emergency lighting but it was not great.  I heard a woman scream out for someone to stop touching her, I do not believe there was anything malicious at play but people were all at breaking point.  A few arguments broke out between passengers (which was worrying with no one to police them) but for the most part there was just hushed chats and silence.

As we crept towards the fourth hour we started to hear announcements from a Southeastern manager.  He announced that they were trying to figure out a way to get us off the train (had they just started at this point?!).  Then he later announced that he needed to reset something on all of the trains doors which would take a further 30 minutes!  There was some very angry shouting and screaming at this point.  Another single minute on this train would be hell and to be told we had to wait 30?  It was downright torture.  Why did this have to be done why could they not just walk us back to the platform safely? After all the power had been cut to the line so that they could rescue the broken down train in front of us.  True to his word this process did take over 30 minutes.  The driver incidentally kept telling us that he had a plan to get us off the train and walk us back to the platform but no one at Southeastern would sign off on it.  Concern for safety or some major arse covering going on?  I would hate to think that this whole affair interrupted the guy in charge’s Friday night dinner plans so he would have to make a decision.  We then waited, again for what seems like an eternity for something to happen and we spotted a police officer who chatted with us in the doorway.  This was the FIRST person (who was not a passenger) we had seen in over 4 hours.

The Evacuation

About 5 minutes after seeing the police officer we started to spot some London Fire Brigade Firemen (and women).  I thought I was dreaming when I saw the guy in front of me slide into a seated position by the door and be carried down to the track by the firemen. We were saved!  I waited for my turn to be helped down (which was insanely hard and painful as my legs were completely seized up – and I am a healthy 38 year old male.).  The Fire Brigade were fantastic and had lined the whole path down the track with their staff (and even gritted part of it for us).  I waited for some family members (who by pure chance) were in the next carriage along and we started the journey down the track.  It was further and more hazardous than I had realised and I along with those that opened the doors were pleased we had waited for the Fire Brigade’s help.  Along with my sister’s boyfriend we helped an old lady down the track and down to the bus stop at Lewisham.  If we had not helped her find her family I fear she would have been in an even worse state.  I kind of expected there to be some Southeastern staff on hand at the Lewisham station exit to offer some assistance to the people needing it – there was nothing.  In fact we all actually took one more slap in the face as due to the ridiculous amount of time we had spent on what should have been a 4.8 mile journey our tickets had all been charged inflated fares!  So I was basically fined for this ordeal.

Southeastern’s failings

This list could go on forever but I’ll keep it restricted to the context of this event.  Some of the things that should have happened and that the blame for is leveled squarely at their door:

1. Update your old knackered equipment.  Its simple – we pay you for a service which includes buying and maintaining trains that are up to the task.  The driver drives the trains yes? So he knows which ones work in the snow and which ones don’t yes? He said the older style don’t work so replace them, its what we pay you for.  Cutting corners for bonus payments is no longer an option.

2. Follow official guidelines when a train is broken down and unlikely to move.  This document makes it quite clear that we should NOT have been detained for this ridiculous length of time.  You broke all codes of health and safety.

3. If it is impossible to evacuate a train like this OFFER SOME FORM OF ASSISTANCE TO PASSENGERS!!!! One of your staff was bragging on Twitter about his two day course to be able to be track-side.  That great, so use it – bring blankets, hot drinks, food and offer medical assistance.  There were many elderly people that needed medication etc. that couldn’t ask anyone official for help.

4. Fire your existing Twitter team and hire a professional social media team.  Many people turned to this as a vital source of information and we get things like the below?  Come on this is 2018, get some professional staff in.  Their answer to anything they don’t want to hear seems to be to block users.  This is a critical public service – I suggest the power to block users is taken away from these people who are abusing it.


5. Give passengers immediate compensation.  Many of us were actually overcharged for this ordeal you put us through and your wishy-washy response of ‘looking into’ compensation is not good enough.  A senior manager should make immediate reparations for the damage caused.  also make sure you publicise where to get compensation well and don’t hide it in the deepest, darkest depths of your website.

6. Stop breaking the law.  The amount of health and safety laws you and your staff broke here is astounding and yet the government doe not hold you to account?  Yes we have Chris Grayling to thank for this but take some responsibility.  Do your management actually have any notion of a duty of care towards your customers?

7. Listen to your drivers.  They are ‘in the field’, ‘the boots on the ground’ they can assess and take action in these situations.  The drivers take the lives of thousands of people in their hands daily.  It was extremely frustrating to hear that the driver had a plan to get us out that he wanted to implement but was having his hands tied by a ‘suit’ somewhere that had no idea of the situation.  Plane pilots can make these decisions, train drivers should be able too as well.

I guess until we get some proper legislation in place customers lives will continue to mean nothing to Southeastern and their staff – its part of their culture.  This situation has proved that like the airlines the train companies and their staff should all be under pressure to get things like this right – first time and have all the correct contingencies in place.

Useful Information for those affected

1. Southeastern told me to go here to fill out a form for compensation, although they don’t say what this is yet.

2. I have created a petition to get a Government ran (Not Southeastern) inquest into what happened here.  The petition is waiting to be checked but keep checking here to see if its published yet.

3. There is a useful Facebook group here with information and discussion from all the passengers affected.

4. What Southeastern SHOULD have done when they realised the train was stranded here.

I’ve tried to keep this as factual as possible and written events as they occurred.  However if anyone has any suggestion etc. please leave a comment below.



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