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V/Line has admitted that thousands of frustrated passengers trapped on stationary trains for up to five hours last week could have been ferried to nearby stations at lower speeds if the crisis had been handled differently.
The beleaguered rail operator's executive team met last week to examine its response to a situation that left peak-hour passengers stuck on board Geelong-line trains without food or water when an underground fault cut power to the signalling system on Tuesday.
Furious passengers contacted The Age to complain about V/Line's response to the situation, questioning why trains that came to a grinding halt in the middle of paddocks could not move a few hundred metres down the tracks to Little River station, where commuters could have organised their own way home.
One passenger reported that, after hours of waiting, he watched as four of his fellow commuters forced open the doors and "fled the train into the darkness".
"I presume they went to the Little River station [which] as it turned out, was only a short distance up the tracks," said Simon Morrison.
"To make trains sit still for 3 hours in 2012 is NOT acceptable."
Another passenger questioned: "Surely there has to be a back up plan? Things worked so much easier 20 years ago you would think someone could get out with a flag & guide us to the next platform."
A V/Line spokesman said the organisation's executive team determined that the trains could have moved to the next station at reduced speeds.
He said the power outage was caused by a major fault in an underground cable between Little River and Werribee, crippling the signalling system and the operation of the track points, or areas of track that allow V/Line to move trains from one track to another.
"There was a concern that if we began moving trains and the power was reinstated, the points would have reset and potentially damaged a train crossing over them," the spokesman said.
"The V/Line executive team had a meeting [last week] to determine what can be done better if a situation like this occurs again. What could have happened is the trains could have proceeded under a caution order where they travel at a speed of 25km/h, and the points are manually moved into the correct position by the driver.
"It's a slow manual process, but one that still allows trains to move."
The rail operator has apologised for the "terrible situation" last week and offered affected passengers two free days of travel on V/Line services.
That was little comfort for those caught up in last week's shambles, with some passengers discussing the need for a "V-line survival kit, comprised of a head torch (for walking beside the track after dark), food, water, and a pigeon for sending messages to loved ones when stranded for hours in an area out of mobile phone range".
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