Tens of thousands of commuters were braced for severe disruption as major engineering works to “bring Waterloo into the 21st century” got under way – but were hit by unrelated signalling problems instead.
As they headed into the first working day of the major overhaul, it appeared many rail users had heeded the warnings of the disruption and had either decided to stay at home, altered their journey times or mode of transport as the predicted chaos failed to materialise.
Many boasted on social media of having their pick of seats as they posted images of empty carriages on their early Monday commute.
One tweeted: “So far so good, on a train to Weybridge even earlier than usual. Warnings must have worked as Waterloo station and train quiet #Waterloo.”
London Waterloo is Britain’s busiest railway station with annual passenger numbers reaching 99 million in 2015/16, compared to 39 million at Birmingham New Street and 26 million at Manchester Piccadilly, official figures show.
The £800m station upgrade means that nearly half of the platforms at Waterloo will now be closed for three-and-a-half weeks until 28 August.
Image: Half of the station’s platforms are closed for the next few weeks
Some did experience busier journeys with one commuter tweeting: “A whole month of standing from Woking to Waterloo and no compensation offered? #southwesttrains #delayed #poorservice #terrible.”
In addition, South West Trains reported a signalling fault affecting some of the platforms open – 11 to 13 – just after 9am, causing long delays.
One angry passenger tweeted: “Not only are Waterloo doing works and have half the platforms they’ve now got signal problems!”
Commuters were also well aware of the return legs of their journeys, with one tweeting: “Feel like Waterloo this evening is going to be a re-make of The Hunger Games #WaterlooUpgrade #SWtrains.”
Passengers travelling from Guildford, Woking and Surbiton in particular are expected to face some disruption during the next few weeks, while it is thought stations including Clapham Junction, Wimbledon, Earlsfield, Richmond and Vauxhall will suffer a knock-on effect.
In what is one of the biggest investments to the railway for decades, platforms will be extended to allow for longer trains and four extra platforms will be brought back into use.
Sky News spoke to commuter Ian Keith, whose home station in Norbiton is one of those being closed during the project.
He said: “I’m entering into my morning commute with trepidation. I think we’re all expecting complete chaos.”
Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne has previously admitted he is “worried there will be challenging days” and accepted that “there are going to be days when the service is very difficult for people”.
Speaking to Sky News during the Monday rush hour he said the service was “running very well”.
He said when passengers are given “plenty of advance warning” they are “very understanding about this sort of engineering work because they see the benefits that they are going to get in the longer term”.
“This kind of job just can’t be done in a weekend. It’s three weeks of intensive activity, 24-hours-a-day with 1,000 people working on this site, so there is no alternative but to do it in this way,” he said.
“We choose to do it in August because there are fewer people travelling during the month, so it actually is the time when we have the least impact on passengers,” he added.
Image: London Waterloo railway station
Amid the engineering works, the South West Trains franchise will also change hands – moving from Stagecoach to First Group and Hong Kong-based MTR on 20 August.
And while South West Trains have advised passengers to consider taking a holiday or work from home during the works, for many commuters this is simply not possible.
Mr Keith said: “There’s just no way I can work from home. I’m putting work in my bag in case I’m left stranded, but that’s about as much as I can do.”
A spokeswoman for Network Rail said: “By the end of next year we will have made space for another 45,000 people at peak times as we turn the old Waterloo International into a high frequency commuter terminal fit for the 21st century.
“But before we arrive there, passengers travelling into Waterloo will face severe disruption over the next three and a half weeks – we are doing all we can to manage the impact on our passengers, and we thank them for their patience during this time.”