De-icing trains taken off the rails during biggest freeze

Two de-icing trains crucial to keeping the rail network running were sent away for their annual service at the height of the big freeze, an MP said yesterday.

Greg Clark, Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells in Kent, said he was "flabbergasted" that the Network Rail trains were sent for maintenance in winter rather than the summer.

The disclosure was made to Mr Clark and other Kent MPs during a meeting with Charles Horton, managing director of rail operator Southeastern, part of the Go- Ahead group.

Network Rail said in response that it had brought in extra resources from other parts of the network which were not affected by the severe weather.

The meeting with MPs was held yesterday at the House of Commons following strong public criticism about the way Southeastern dealt with the recent sub-zero conditions.

The operator has been accused by union leaders of being "caught out" by the cold snap, with its services collapsing into "total chaos".

Mr Clark said "Southeastern has let down its customers by failing to run trains and by failing to communicate with the public.

"Although the amount of snow was exceptional, I was flabbergasted to be told by Charles Horton that two of Network Rail's crucial de-icing trains had been sent away for their annual service at the end of November so were out of action last week.

"It is farcical that de-icing trains should go in for maintenance in the winter, when they are needed, rather than during the summer, when they are not."

A Network Rail spokesman said: "During last week's winter weather in Kent, we brought in extra resources from other parts of the network which were not affected.

"These more modern locomotives were able to do much more than the piece of kit that was being upgraded.

"We apologise to passengers who faced disruption last week and pay tribute to the Network Rail people and train operator staff who worked 24 hours a day in Arctic conditions to enable the best possible train service to run."

Mr Clark said that Southeastern's communication with passengers during the freezing temperatures was "utter chaos".

"Travellers couldn't tell from the company's own website, from station announcements, from the telephone line or from information given to broadcasters what they were supposed to do," he said.

"Passengers were able to find out more from each other using Twitter than they were from the company that was taking their money.

"Sadly, I was not persuaded by the meeting that Southeastern fully recognise the scale of their ineptitude on communications.

"It shows the need for fundamental change at Southeastern."

Mr Clark asked Mr Horton to offer a "goodwill discount" to customers and not to "shelter behind the contractual defence".