“If you have not already started your journey please do not travel unless it is absolutely necessary”: that was the plea from East Midlands Trains to passengers at one of its busiest hubs, Nottingham.
British Transport Police are treating the blaze at the recently restored railway station as arson. Superintendent Sandra England said: “Enquiries have been ongoing today and we now have reason to believe the fire may have been started deliberately. Officers are working to identify anyone who may have been involved in the incident, and we are appealing for information from members of the public.
“Fortunately, we have not had any reports of injuries as a result of the fire.”
It is believed the fire started in a toilet at 6.25am, ahead of the morning rush hour. Initially it was hoped services through the station would resume later in the day. But as travellers scrabbled to find alternative ways to reach their destination on the busiest day of the week, it became clear that there would be no trains running all day.
The new transport minister, Jo Johnson, called the fire “a devastating incident that has done substantial damage”.
Nottinghamshire Fire & Rescue tweeted: “The fire has caused quite extensive damage to the toilet area and there is a lot of smoke damage in the concourse.
“Contractors are now working to remove debris from the station, clean it up and make it safe for the public.
“We’d like to say a big thanks to residents and commuters for their patience whilst we’ve dealt with this incident.”
Network Rail said: “Structural engineers will need to assess the station before we can understand which trains will be able to run tomorrow.”
Limited replacement bus services were laid on, together with a rail link between Beeston, close to Nottingham, and Derby. A coach operator, Sn-Ap, offered passengers with advance rail tickets free rides to and from London.
Even on routes that do not pass through Nottingham, such as the Leicester-Derby-Sheffield line, some services were disrupted because crews and trains were out of position.
CrossCountry Trains, which runs services between Birmingham and Nottingham, told football fans heading for Saturday’s clash between Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa: “Due to the fire at Nottingham station, we are currently unable to run any trains to this station. This may continue into tomorrow, and therefore we recommend considering alternative transport.”
Elsewhere in the country, hundreds of thousands of travellers faced disruption because of strikes on Northern, Merseyrail and Southwestern Railway. Members of the RMT union are taking action in a dispute about driver-only operation and the future role of guards.
All three operators reduced their services by about one third, with some routes closed all day and earlier finishes on many lines.
A strike over the same issue also took place on Greater Anglia, but the train operator said it intended to run a full service.
North of London, the evening rush hour was disrupted because of damage to the overhead electric wires between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace.
Commuters were told: “Trains running across the Great Northern network may be delayed by up to 60 minutes, cancelled or revised.”