Southeastern’s snow failure – the real culprit revealed

Why are south-east London’s trains failing in the snow? And why is the Docklands Light Railway running (sort of) alright? Let Channel 4 News‘s Julian Rush explain why, from four minutes into this video.

It’s the best explanation I’ve ever seen of why we’re so unlucky to be lumbered with an obselete third rail system introduced 80 years ago.

Incredible that a journalist is the one that does a better job of explaining what’s happening than Southeastern’s PR department – or that of Network Rail or the other train operators – but considering the company’s performance recently, there you go.


  1. I am told that there are ways of dealing with third rail and snow/ice – and hopefully someone will explain what they are. What I have found shocking about a lot of the TV coverage is that many of the rail spokespeople don’t understand what it is and talk about ‘electric pipes’ and so on. In 1963 snow came down on Boxing Day and hadn’t melted by March – and if the third rail is such a problem then they would have cancelled all trains for three months. I don’t think so. I suspect it is all more to do with management culture.

  2. Mary – they would have used mainly diesel trains and maybe a few steam trains back in 1963!

  3. Really?? I find it difficult to believe that BR could have magiked up enough steam and diesel stock to have run the whole of the south eastern network for three months. There were some antiquated steam locos on the Cooling branch – but I can’t see they would have done much. I am not going to argue too much because 1963 is the one (and only) year I wasn’t commuting – but in all the other years it was the same old green electrics.

  4. Just for Ric:


    I’m sure that in 1963, it was the same slam-door trains in use then that ran until the mid-90s. I’m curious to find out just what happened then…

  5. quite Darryl – and that is the point. Were the new trains different? I don’t know when the slam door stock came in but I don’t remember any other (except that at some point in the 1960s the Southern Railway green was re-painted blue) so it could well have been the stock originally designed for the line. As everything else has been cancelled I will waste the afternoon talking to train spotters.

  6. well – thought I should report back. The trainspotters I asked just mutter about ‘management accountantcy decisions’.. ‘cultural change’. As they are all steam enthusiasts they did all point out that in the 1960s there would have been a few steam locos around which could have done good work in clearing blocked lines and shunting stuck trains,
    I havve also been looking sat ‘Southern Electric `1909-`1968’ by G.T.Moody – which is not a particularly analytical work. It does say that in the terrible winter of 1947 that they did keep electric services running but on March 4th a train took 8 hours to get to London from Brighton (and if that is the worst they could find….). However, the worst problems then were coal shortages and then flooding and landslips in the thaw. He talks a bit about 1963 – saying that on 30th December the Orpington lines were blocked and ‘traffic was at a standstill’. The only other things he can find is a baby born on the Victoria boat train (it had to stop at Sevenoaks) in January and early morning trains delayed at Catford on 19th February because of the nickage of copper wire. But none of how it is about what it was they did to cope! Sorry.

  7. I noticed one bloke on the radio say “if we had our time over again we would never build railways with third-rail electrification.”

    Clearly never seen the (rebuilt from scratch) East London Line…

  8. I suspect the ELL was built with third rail because
    a) it needs to be interoperable with other parts of the network which are third rail (south of New Cross Gate)
    b) possible lack of headroom in the tunnels

  9. As a regular commuter who has to produce my season ticket several times during my journey to Southeastern conductors or onboard managers it’s amazing how during the snow chaos when they would actually be welcomed to give some service news to passengers that they all disappear, havent had to produce my ticket for several days!

  10. The old slam-door trains were heavier than today’s trains, so perhaps were able to batter their way through the ice a bit. Today’s trains also have a lot of electronics, which incidentally mean they also use more power even though they’re lighter, but maybe the electronics are susceptible to the sparks and flashes caused by ice on the third rail. But that’s just a guess by me.
    By the way — anorak point here — the low-level lines out of London Bridge via Denmark Hill to Victoria, and to Crystal Palace were initially electrified using overhead wires (see picture here but in 1923 the three railways in the south were merged into the Southern Railway, which standardised on the third rail system already in use on the lines from Waterloo.

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