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A guide to rail disruption: Why does it happen and what can I do?

Nobody likes it when their journey is disrupted. Whether your train has been cancelled or you’ve missed a connecting train, rail disruption can make the experience stressful. Here’s our guide to why disruption happens and what you can do when it happens.

What’s on this page?

Why does rail disruption happen?

Let’s take a look at some of the common delay reasons and what they mean for your journey:

Signalling problems

This can mean a wide variety of issues which means that trains aren’t able to run safely:

  • A blown fuse or circuit which means that a signal is stuck on red or isn’t displaying anything at all
  • Issues with a track circuit, meaning that a signaller can’t see where trains are
  • A points issue. This means that trains are only able to travel in the direction that the points are stuck facing. At a large junction or station, this can cause platforms or lines to be cut off until the points are fixed.

All of these issues can cause congestion, as trains will need to travel at slower speeds and stop at signals more regularly. They also might not be able to move at all until equipment is fixed. Network Rail have also produced a handy guide on how they fix these issues.

A shortage of traincrew

This one is fairly self explanatory, but it often isn’t as simple as a missing driver or conductor:

  • There might have been no driver to bring the train out of the depot. So, even if there’s a driver and/or guard ready to run the service further down the line, there’s no train for them.
  • Some trains can’t run without a guard. So in this case, the driver takes the train out of service to the next station with an available one.
  • Staff may be available to take a train to its destination, but there’s nobody to bring it back. If a train is needed at a depot for servicing that night for example, it can’t be left somewhere else.
  • The traincrew may not ‘sign’ the route. All staff need to know where everything is on all of the lines that they work on, such as signals, stopping positions and what to do in an emergency. If they don’t know this information, they can’t take the train there.
  • Of course, the overarching theme is that staff simply aren’t available. While operators are in the process of training new guards and drivers, this is a lengthy and in-depth training programme. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many of these training programmes being paused.
Severe weather

As the railway in Great Britain wasn’t designed around extreme weather, rail disruption can occur when the weather becomes too hot, cold, wet, windy or essentially anything that we wouldn’t normally expect to see!

  • Extreme heat can cause rails to expand and buckle. This is because they’re designed to withstand colder temperatures (as colder weather is more common in Great Britain). When this happens, trains will need to run at slower speeds to ensure that they can run safely and avoid causing damage. Heat can also cause overhead electric wires to expand, sag and stop working.
  • Extreme cold can cause points and other signalling equipment to freeze. In the South East of England and on Merseyside, where electric trains are powered by a third rail, this rail can also freeze and cause electricity to stop flowing. Some third rail systems are heated, while others are treated with de-icer by special trains, to mitigate this issue.
  • Heavy rain can result in some tracks becoming flooded. Trains are unable to run once water reaches the top of the rail for safety reasons, as the trackbed/ground could have become washed away under this water.
  • Wind can cause debris to be blown onto overhead wires or onto the tracks. In extreme circumstances, it also causes structures such as station buildings to become damaged.
rail disruption third rail
A train powered by third rail (lower centre)
A train fault

Train faults can mean any number of issues that cause a train to be unfit for service. Common examples that can cause a train to be cancelled while at a station include:

  • Doors unable to be locked, so the train cannot move
  • Non-functioning PA system, meaning that instructions cannot be given in emergencies
  • Fault with equipment in the driver’s cab, such as communications equipment with the signaller.

In more extreme cases, a train may become immobilised while between stations. If a train becomes damaged while on the move, it can cause brakes or other vital functions to become damaged. Depending on the severity of the damage, the fault may take some time to fix or may cause an evacuation to be necessary.

Overhead line problem

Overhead line problems are caused by a failure of the electricity supply or damage to the lines themselves. Damage can be caused by severe weather, debris or by the train’s ‘pantograph’ (which collects power from the lines for the train) becoming damaged/entangled in the wiring.

When this happens, all trains in the area are stopped. Those that are able to run on diesel may run via an alternative route, but others will be unable to move under the overhead lines are repaired.

rail disruption - train with pantograph
A train which collects power through a pantograph (located centre top).
Emergency services dealing with an incident

Unfortunately, this can mean that an accident has occurred on the railway which requires intervention from the emergency services. Whether that’s a vehicle on the tracks or someone being hit by a train, these incidents can take time to be dealt with.

Slippery rails

Slippery rails are caused by a loss of adhesion, which means that the wheels of the train are unable to gain traction. Think of it like trying to get up a hill when there’s black ice on the road. This can be caused by two factors:

  • Leaves on the line might seem like a classic British reason for trains being late, but a combination of leaves and wet weather turns these leaves into a greasy mulch. Find out more with our explainer about leaves on the line.
  • Wet weather can also cause rails to become slippery. The worst culprit for this is drizzle and light rain during colder weather.

As trains will need to drive more slowly in order to avoid a loss of traction, this causes congestion and journeys will take longer. To combat this, Network Rail operates special ‘Railhead Treatment Trains’ during the Autumn months, which are equipped with high-pressure water jets to remove leaves from the line.

What are my rights during rail disruption?

During rail disruption, the railway should do everything they can to keep you moving. Here’s what you’re entitled to when you experience rail disruption on your journey:

The National Rail Conditions of Travel state that:

Where disruption prevents you from completing the journey for which your Ticket is valid and is being used, any Train Company will, where it reasonably can, provide you with alternative means of travel to your destination, or if necessary, provide overnight accommodation for you.

National Rail Conditions of Travel, Section 28.2

This means that, except in extreme situations, such as severe weather (which otherwise prevents alternative transport from being arranged) or pre-arranged industrial action (where no alternatives are provided), rail operators must do everything they can to either get you to your destination or into overnight accommodation.

If you have an Advance ticket
  • You are automatically entitled to board the next available service operated by the same train company that you were booked with
  • If ticket acceptance is arranged, you can board another operator’s service
  • If there are no more trains running that are operated by the company you booked with, you should be accommodated by another operator, or alternative transport/accommodation should be arranged
  • When your train is cancelled and if you choose not to travel, you are entitled to a full refund from the point of purchase. Click here to find out more about what to do if you’ve booked through Railsmartr.
If you have an Off-Peak, Super Off-Peak or Anytime ticket
  • You are entitled to use any trains within the route, operator and/or time restrictions of your ticket. In many cases, these restrictions will be lifted
  • If the train operator is unable to get you to your destination, alternative transport/accommodation should be arranged
  • When your train is cancelled and if you choose not to travel, you are entitled to a full refund from the point of purchase. Click here to find out more about what to do if you’ve booked through Railsmartr.
Split tickets
  • Using a combination of tickets, known as ‘split ticketing’, does not affect your rights to compensation or alternative transport
  • If you miss a connecting train due to rail disruption and you’re travelling on split tickets, you are entitled to catch the next available service, provided that it’s run by the same rail operator. This is unless ticket acceptance is in place
  • When claiming compensation, you’re entitled to claim on the whole journey, not just the ticket on the part of the journey which was disrupted
  • Make sure that you adhere to ‘minimum connection times’ when buying split tickets. This is five minutes at most stations, but can be up to 15 minutes at larger stations.

If in doubt, speak to staff before boarding the train. Any permission given by station staff should ideally be in writing, to avoid further issues on your journey.

If you’re stranded or unable to travel any further by train

When you’re set to miss your last connecting train or unable to complete your journey, you should inform on-train or station staff as soon as possible. They should make the relevant arrangements for you, which will usually involve providing a bus or taxi.

In some situations, train operators may be unable to provide alternative arrangements during rail disruption. In these situations, you should do the following:

  • Make your own arrangements if you’re able to
  • Retain receipts and other proof of purchase for all of these arrangements. This includes taxi receipts and hotel invoices
  • Contact the rail operator who disrupted you, and/or who you should have travelled with, to request that you are reimbursed for these alternative arrangements. This is separate to compensation for your train ticket (detailed below).

My train was cancelled and I had to get a taxi

If your train was cancelled and you had to get a taxi (that you had to pay for), then you should request a receipt. It should say where you travelled to and from, and how much was paid. If you’ve used an online app such as Uber or Bolt, then you’ll get an email confirmation after your ride.

You should send this information to the train company that you were booked to travel with. You’ll need to send it to their Customer Relations team, rather than adding it to any claim for a train delay.

As we mentioned above, the National Rail Conditions of Travel state that you cannot be left stranded, nor should you be left out of pocket in these situations.

Claiming compensation for rail disruption

If you’ve been disrupted, rail operators are required to compensate you based on the cost of your ticket. Sometimes, this compensation kicks in with delays as low as 15 minutes, but it can be as high as 60 minutes. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Keep hold of your ticket. You’ll need it to claim compensation
  • Contact the train company that first delayed you. Usually, this will be the operator that you were meant to travel with. If you were delayed more than once on your trip, you still claim from the company that first delayed you
  • Complete their compensation form and attach a copy of your tickets
  • Click here to find out more about claiming delay repay.

As mentioned above, if you’re using a combination of tickets, you are entitled to claim for your whole journey. For example, if you have a ticket from Newcastle to York and then York to Leeds, and you’re delayed between York and Leeds, you can claim for the whole journey from Newcastle.

Disclaimer: All information was correct at the time of publication, but is subject to change. Railsmartr is not responsible for the arrangement of alternative transport or compensation as a result of disruption. You should always first contact the operator responsible or speak to staff if you’re having difficulty in completing your journey.