Rail passengers who have ridden out a year of disruption through timetable meltdowns, strikes and seasonal weather have been warned of another factor causing delay: balloons on the line.
Network Rail said there was a growing problem from helium-filled balloons, which it blamed for causing hundreds of train delays annually at a cost to the taxpayer of about £1m.
Across England, Scotland and Wales, 619 “balloon-related incidents” – almost two a day – were recorded by the company last year. Most of the delays were caused by helium balloons getting tangled around high-voltage overhead wires, which can be potentially fatal for the balloon owner if they fail to let go.
Each time such an incident occurred, trains had to be stopped while the 25,000 volt electric current was switched off and the lines were made safe.
On at least one occasion, trains were unable to depart from London on the major north-south West Coast main line because of a balloon issue. Departures from Euston station were disrupted last November when a balloon got tangled in wires at Hemel Hempstead.
The latest incident, earlier this week in Birmingham, caused hundreds of passengers to be delayed, costing an estimated £5,000, when a helium balloon got wrapped in overhead wires at Smethwick Rolfe Street station.
James Dean, the chief operating officer for Network Rail’s London north western route, said: “If you’re on a railway station platform with a foil balloon filled with helium on a string and it comes in contact with the overhead wires carrying 25,000 volts, that could cause huge injury or death.
“Ideally, we’d ask people not to bring balloons into our stations at all. Alternatively, carry them in bags so the risk of them floating upwards is minimised.”
Balloon artists echoed the safety message from Network Rail. The National Association of Balloon Artists and Suppliers (NABAS) has launched a campaign to stop the public releasing foil balloons, sky lanterns or other helium-filled objects with plastic string or ribbons attached.
George Oustayiannis, the chairman of NABAS, said: “Balloons bring fun and colour and a sense of celebration to any event, but please dispose of them responsibly, and never release balloons into the atmosphere. Respect the environment and prevent unnecessary danger and delays – please don’t let go.”