Essential questions and answers for people hoping to travel by train on 31 December
The final day of 2021 is expected to be one of the most chaotic of the year for rail travellers.
Train operators are cancelling hundreds of services due to staff absences as the Omicron variant sweeps across the the UK. Many passengers will also be hit by a strike by employees of one of the main inter-city train companies.
“If you see a train, catch it” is the message that will resound on New Year’s Eve. Wherever you are, assume your rail journey will be disrupted – and be pleasantly surprised if you travel as expected.
These are the key questions and answers
Where are the main problems?
The highest number of cancellations is likely to be on CrossCountry. Its network is centred on Birmingham, connecting Scotland, northern England, the Midlands and the south coast.
Members of the RMT union are staging a one-day strike in a dispute about the role of guards. CrossCountry says: “We will only be able to run a very limited timetable” and is advising passengers to avoid travel today if they can.
If you must travel, a skeleton service will operate between Edinburgh and Plymouth and between Manchester and Bournemouth. Most stations are served by other operators.
The union says it is taking industrial action because of what it calls “a systematic attempt by CrossCountry to undermine the role of the senior conductors and train managers by drafting in other staff to do their jobs.”
What about the rest of the country?
Thursday was fairly chaotic, with multiple short-notice cancellations across the rail network. It seems likely that the same will happen on New Year’s Eve.
Some train operators are giving passengers a head start by announcing cancellations in advance.
East Midlands Railway, which links Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester with London, is cutting trains across its network. It is “working to try and replace as many services as possible with bus replacements”.
LNER, the main operator on the East Coast main line from London King’s Cross to Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland, has been routinely cancelling a dozen services between Leeds and London each day to try to keep the rest of the operation on track. Many other services between the two cities are available.
TransPennine Express, which links cities in northern England and southern Scotland, is doing much the same as LNER but on a larger scale – cancelling or curtailing dozens of train, including some expresses between Manchester airport and Glasgow. It is warning: “Further short-notice cancellations and amendments to services are likely throughout the day.”
Avanti West Coast, the main operator linking southern Scotland with northwest England, the West Midlands and London Euston, is warning of short-notice cancellations. During the week around one in 10 of its trains have been cancelled, including some of its longest-distance services between London and Edinburgh/Glasgow.
GWR has been cancelling or curtailing a wide range of trains – from London-Penzance expresses to slow trains through Wiltshire – but the core lines from London Paddington to Bath/Bristol and Cardiff/Swansea are being maintained.
Wales and Scotland have different approaches …
Yes. They are cutting between 10 and 15 per cent of rail services to try to run a reliable service. Just before Christmas, Transport for Wales brought in an emergency timetable “to prepare for an expected rise in staff shortages due to the emergence of the Omicron variant.
In Scotland, ScotRail – which runs most of the nation’s trains – is warning of cancellations, saying: “The rapid spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant has resulted in a large number of absences at ScotRail, with colleagues testing positive, awaiting results, or having to self-isolate.”
The Scottish government is urging people not to travel unless they have to, and recommends passengers take a lateral flow test before travelling by train, bus or ship.
What are my options if my train is cancelled?
If you have a fixed Advance ticket, you can travel on the train before or the one afterwards (assuming they are running), but your seat reservation will not be transferred and you will need to find an empty space.
If you end up being significantly late then you can claim compensation. But you should not catch a train from a different company unless you have been told by staff (or an official social media source) that you may do so.
If you decide not to travel (perhaps because the surviving trains will be more crowded than expected), you can claim a refund only if your specific train has been cancelled.
Will problems extend into the New Year?
Definitely – especially in the London area. One of the biggest commuter networks, Southern, which serves south London, Surrey and the South Coast, is losing its main hub, Victoria station, until 10 January.
Lines are currently closed due to planned Network Rail engineering work, with reduced services routed to the alternative hub, London Bridge.
Trains were due to resume on 4 January. But yesterday Southern said its principal terminus will remain shut for a further week.
The Gatwick Express, which restarted only three weeks ago after an 18-month closure, has been suspended again.
What do the politicians say?
The rail minister, Wendy Morton, tweeted: “I’m aware of disruption to some rail services as a result of staff shortages.
“While it is for operators to manage timetables, I continue to monitor the situation closely.
“Remember to always check the status of your service before travel.”
The shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh MP said: “The government are silent about their contingency plans, if indeed they have any at all.
“Labour wrote to ministers weeks ago about the need for proper contingency plans for inevitable shortages as staff do the right thing and self-isolate. The government need to get a grip.”