Revealed: As rail network ground to a halt, bosses sent de-icing trains for their annual service

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 today.

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

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 today: "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."

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".

Mr Horton apologised to customers and said changes had already been made to improve the service and information provided to them.

He said: "We are sorry that many of our passengers had severely disrupted services last week due to the snow and icy conditions on the track.

"Ice on the conductor rail makes it impossible for trains to draw electricity, causing major disruption.

"Network Rail worked hard to clear the snow and keep the rails free of ice, but despite their efforts large parts of the network were closed due to the very heavy snowfall.

"Our high-speed services, which use overhead power cables on HS1, continued to operate throughout the bad weather, and this enabled people from some parts of Kent to make journeys to and from London.

"We accept that there were shortcomings in information provision and this made the disruption even more frustrating for passengers.

"Although some of the improvements introduced following last year's snow did work well, we know that there is much more to do to ensure that passengers get timely and accurate information at all times.

"We've already identified some short-term measures to improve this but will be working with industry partners on whom we rely for much of the information to achieve more significant improvements."

The meeting followed the announcement that workers at Southeastern are to be balloted for strikes in a row over jobs.

The Rail Maritime and Transport union said its members based at Charing Cross and Victoria in London will vote in the next few weeks on whether to launch a campaign of industrial action, with the result due early in the new year.

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."