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Cancellations, evacuations in the middle of the night, delays and faulty toilets: the grand relaunch in April of the Caledonian Sleeper train service between London and Scotland has proved a public-relations nightmare.
The scale of the crisis on the Lowlander route connecting London to Glasgow and Edinburgh was highlighted on Wednesday, when Serco, which runs the franchise, announced that new trains on the sister Highlander service would be delayed for a second time until September.
The carriages, a “hotel on wheels” featuring luxury, en-suite cabins from £335, were expected to start operating between London, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William in July but will now be used to support the troubled Lowland service.
Lowlander passengers have been subjected to countless delays and cancellations. Onboard there have been leaking water systems, broken toilets and intercom alarms going off through the night. Passengers have sometimes found themselves placed in old carriages.
In one of the worst incidents earlier this month, the emergency brakes came on and caused ‘flat wheels’. Passengers had to disembark at 5am in the West Midlands and complete the journey to Scotland by bus.
Andrew Wilson, Scotland’s former shadow minister for transport, gave the service a meagre three out of 10 as he tweeted on Thursday: “The new @CalSleeper is not a good experience.”
Another passenger tweeted: “No water in cabin basin, loo out of order, no towels, door doesn’t lock, breakfast 1970s microwave horror — all this for £400!”
It is not the start that outsourcer Serco envisaged for the service that was supposed to revive the romance of long-distance train travel and provide a glamorous boost for Scotland’s tourist trade.
The £150m fleet, built by Spanish-based manufacturer CAF, was introduced in April and had already been delayed by six months. Serco’s replacing of 75 carriages that were almost 40 years old was helped by a £60m subsidy from Scotland’s government, on top of £50m from the UK government.
Serco’s chief executive Rupert Soames regularly travels on the service to and from Scotland, where he has a house. But he has yet to make any comment on the problems with the service.
Transport Scotland, which awarded the 15-year rail contract to Serco in 2015, said the delay was “simply unacceptable”. It added it was disappointed the delay meant the trains would not run on the Highlander route during the height of the summer season.
Staff are also struggling to cope. In late May, rail union RMT said the introduction of the new trains had been “chaotic” and said staff morale had “collapsed”. Gordon Martin, an RMT regional organiser, said that initially the company did not treat the problems with the seriousness they deserved. Some progress was made recently on proposals to help staff, “but not enough”, he said.
John Whitehurst, Serco’s managing director of transport, said the company has been working hard to fix the problems. He praised staff for doing a “brilliant job” and added that discussions with the RMT had been constructive.
The chaos could prove costly. While Serco was not prepared to comment on the likely impact, refunds have been issued to passengers and there are likely to be penalties in line with the franchise agreement.
Ryan Flaherty, Serco’s managing director at Caledonian Sleeper, said this week: “We are disappointed to be announcing this further delay, but it is undoubtedly the correct decision.”
He added that while the Caledonian Sleeper was keen to get its new trains operating on the Highlander service as soon as possible, the priority must be delivering a reliable service on the Lowlander route.
Although the catalogue of errors is clear, there are factors beyond Caledonian’s
control, such as the proper working of the infrastructure, which is run by Network Rail. On the night of the relaunch from London Euston the service was delayed by almost three hours because of signalling problems.
But, in the meantime, the dismal passenger reviews keep piling up.
In response to Mr Wilson, Alison Thewliss, the Scottish National party’s MP for Glasgow Central tweeted: “At least you had a train. I turned up on Monday night to find it had been cancelled. No email notification. Only just managed to make arrangements to get to House of Commons in time.”
April Masson was one of those decanted from the London-Glasgow train following the emergency stop and eventually arrived in Glasgow five hours later than planned. “There’s only so much that can be classed as ‘teething troubles’,” she said.
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