Suffolk: Rail chaos as signalman falls ill before shift

East Suffolk line services were disrupted

East Suffolk line services were disrupted - Credit:

Rail services on the East Suffolk line were thrown into chaos for much of Saturday after a signalman was taken seriously ill at the line’s only control centre in Saxmundham.

There was no back-up signal operator available to take over at the box which controls all trains running between Ipswich and Lowestoft.

Rail services were suspended from 8am on Saturday morning until a relief operator was able to reach Saxmundham at about 11am.

By then six trains had been cancelled – but the knock-on effect caused problems until the middle of the afternoon.

The disruption caused problems for hundreds of potential travellers – many football fans travel to the town by train because the station is near Portman Road and the town centre was also busy with early Christmas shoppers, some visiting the continental market in the Buttermarket and Queen Street.

A spokeswoman for Network Rail said the problem arose because the signalman on the rota had been taken seriously ill very suddenly – and there was no one available who was qualified to step in.

She said: “Normally there would be a contingency when this kind of thing happens, but the new signalling has only been in operation for a short time and we are still training staff on how to use it.

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“We would normally have someone available in this situation, but on this occasion there was no immediate cover. We apologise for the problems, but there was nothing we could do about this – safety is the first issue.”

Train operators Greater Anglia took steps to ensure that passengers from Saxmundham and Woodbridge could use their rail tickets on First Buses.

And passengers from Lowestoft were given the option of travelling via Lowestoft.

However there were no buses available to provide a rail replacement service directly.

A spokesman for Greater Anglia said: “We are sorry there was disruption to our passengers and we did what we could to help – things were back to normal by the early afternoon.”

The problems did not impress MPs Dr Therese Coffey and Ben Gummer.

Dr Coffey said she would be raising the issue with Network Rail at the start of the week: “I am very sorry to hear about the signalman’s illness, but I don’t know why there was no back-up. The line was modernised last year.”

And Mr Gummer felt it showed the need to transfer signalling to a larger centre in Romford as soon as possible so there is always back-up if there is a problem like this – the line brought many people to Ipswich.