As the government promises “some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days” over Christmas, millions of prospective rail travellers face problems reaching families and friends due to engineering closures.
As usual, many major upgrade projects are scheduled by Network Rail to take place over Christmas and New Year – from Wednesday 23 December 2020 to Sunday 3 January 2021.
Normally this is the time of lowest demand across the rail network, which is why it is chosen for large-scale closures.
But it is widely expected that the UK government and the devolved administrations will open up the opportunity to visit other households only between Christmas Eve and 28 December. This five-day spell, dubbed “Christmas ease”, coincides with the period when long-distance rail travel is more difficult than at any other time of year.
The 19 million British people without access to a car could find their journey plans thwarted or extremely crowded.
No trains will run on Christmas Day. Very few services will operate on Boxing Day – none of them long-distance.
As a result, Christmas Eve is likely to be very busy, with problems exacerbated by the early closedown of rail services on 24 December – typically in late afternoon or early evening.
But widespread engineering works mean that journeys back after Christmas get-togethers could be fraught.
London King's Cross, the hub for the flagship East Coast main line, will be closed completely – with no trains between the evening of Christmas Eve and the morning of New Year’s Eve. Disruption will continue until Sunday 3 January.
Passengers travelling from London to Yorkshire, Newcastle and Edinburgh will have to find alternatives.
A spokesperson for the principal operator on the East Coast main line, LNER, said: “We fully recognise that the disruption to deliver the East Coast Upgrade will cause disappointment for some of our customers this Christmas.
“Network Rail requires extensive access to the railway in order to deliver this incredibly complex programme to upgrade and improve services.
“The East Coast upgrade involves many periods of planned disruption, which began in summer 2019 and will continue through the Christmas period, followed by multiple periods of reduced services in 2021. Unfortunately, the pandemic severely constrained available opportunities for when this essential work could be carried out.
“To support our customers this Christmas, we are increasing services from early December up until the planned disruption begins on 24 December and are continuing to operate reservation-only services to prevent overcrowding. We urge customers to plan ahead this Christmas to avoid disappointment.
“We understand the disruption this may cause to Christmas plans and apologise in advance for any inconvenience. Once complete, this upgrade will allow us to deliver significantly improved journeys for all our customers.”
On the line linking the capital with East Anglia, passengers for Colchester and Ipswich face travelling from London Liverpool Street to Stansted Airport – from where they will need to travel onwards by bus.
Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “Our frontline workers have continued to work tirelessly throughout the pandemic to maintain and upgrade the railway for those who need it and this festive period will be no different, with thousands of workers out delivering significant improvements across our infrastructure.
“It is vital that we drive improved rail performance through targeted investment work so that the railway can continue to play its part in Britain building back better from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“While the majority of the rail network will be open as usual for passengers, some routes will be affected by these works, so we’re asking people to check before travelling.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “It’s important that people can plan Christmas and New Year travel with confidence. Passengers will welcome ongoing investment and improvement, but not the inconvenience that comes with it.
“To make matters worse for rail travellers, timetables for trains that will run in late December and early January have still not been published.
Mr Smith said: “It’s frustrating that timetables are being finalised later than usual, so the industry needs to make it clear when they are confirmed and advance tickets go on sale.
“Given the need to social distance, passengers would also value knowing which trains are likely to be particularly busy.”