UK rail industry in talks to boost Christmas services

The rail industry is in talks with government to put on more services during the five-day “Christmas bubble” in an attempt to ease the strain on the UK transport network from an anticipated surge in people moving around the country. 

There were fears of travel chaos over the festive season after the government this week announced a relaxation of the coronavirus restrictions that would allow three households from across the UK to mix between December 23 and December 27.

The window coincides with planned, large-scale closures of parts of the rail network — which happen every Christmas over an eight to 10 day period into the new year — to carry out major engineering works. 

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, acknowledged the works could cause problems and advised people to consider whether they need to travel at all and if they did to “look very carefully at the transport route they take”.

In an attempt to ease possible congestion, Network Rail, the state-owned operator of the railways, is in talks with several train operating companies and the Department for Transport about the possibility of adding more trains to the Christmas timetables.

Although operators are now running about 90 per cent of train services — in contrast to a sharp reduction in the first lockdown — social distancing has reduced the capacity of each service by half. Passengers on most long distance trains cannot board without a reservation.

The East Coast mainline between London, north-east England and Scotland faces the biggest disruption. London’s King’s Cross station will be closed for most of the festive period as part of a £1.2bn upgrade of the line.

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The operator, London North Eastern Railway, has a warning on its website advising people to avoid travel to the capital for part of the holiday period and not to travel at all for the days immediately after Christmas. LNER said it would put on more trains in December. 

Avanti West Coast, which runs trains on the west coast mainline linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland, said it was “looking very closely” at putting on more trains.

Line chart of % change in transport use compared with last year showing people have been quicker to return to their cars than trains this year

Rail operators have warned that the large fall in passenger numbers caused by the pandemic has made forecasting demand over the Christmas period much more difficult.

The railway planned for a rush of students going back to university in September, but this never materialised. “We don’t have any reliable data to predict this, this has never happened before,” said Richard Scott, Avanti executive.

Ministers have asked Network Rail whether any minor engineering work can be delayed, although the more disruptive larger projects, which are planned years in advance, cannot be postponed.

Motoring organisations were optimistic that the UK road network should be able to cope with an increase in traffic over the period despite some concerns about congestion. Car use has returned to pre-pandemic levels as people concerned about the risk of infection shun public transport.

Highways England, which looks after the country’s motorway network and larger A-roads, plans to remove non-essential roadworks.

The RAC said it expects the roads to be busy but Edmund King, AA president, said he was not expecting a “free for all”, pointing to a survey showing 40 per cent of his members were not planning to make their normal Christmas journey.

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“We really don’t think it will be ‘Carmageddon’ as some people have been predicting,” he said.

National Express, the UK’s largest coach operator, said there had been a “significant increase in traffic” to its website for journeys to and from the capital following the Christmas “bubble” announcement. It said it was planning to increase services, which are currently running at 20 per cent of normal levels.

Rival Stagecoach, which owns Megabus, said it was reviewing the number of services needed over Christmas.


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