Millions stranded in trains fiasco

Ministers and watchdog locked in blame game over Christmas services
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The Independent Online

The rail industry, the Government and regulators were engaged in a farcical blame game last night over who is responsible for Britain's annual 58-hour Christmas railway shut down, which begins tonight.

Train operating companies said yesterday that they would be ready to introduce services from next year but blamed the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) for not co-ordinating an agreement. Atoc, however, said it was prepared to take part in meetings with Network Rail and the Government to discuss a new Christmas timetable, but it blamed the Government for failing to co-ordinate talks. Meanwhile, the Government has laid the blame at the door of individual operators, which it says are the only ones who can act to introduce the services.

The failure to act has led to another Christmas in which anyone wanting to travel on Boxing Day will be stranded. It comes a year after pledges from Iain Coucher, the chief executive of Network Rail, that action would be taken after an identical closure last year. "We now need to run railways every single day of the week. We need to run them on Christmas Days and Boxing Days," he said in January. Major train services will stop running at 8pm this evening and will not begin again until 6am on Saturday, despite a full programme of football fixtures on Boxing Day, as well as the high street sales. Football supporters alone will add tens of thousands of cars to the nation's roads on Boxing Day. However, the Government had been aiming to cut emissions from traffic severely to meet its target of cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Senior MPs and transport groups criticised train companies for the closure. Britain is the only major European country not to have services running over Christmas. A group of 34 MPs from all three main parties have backed a parliamentary motion calling for services to be introduced.

In the motion, the group expresses "deep disappointment that once again during this festive season the United Kingdom's railways will undergo a 58-hour shutdown with no services whatsoever being provided on the overwhelming majority of lines".

John Grogan, the MP for Selby who tabled the motion, said: "We altered the rules on Sunday trading when the circumstances dictated. It is high time the same is done for... people wanting to travel on Boxing Day at least."

Louise Ellman, the chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said: "It does not make sense in regards to demand and it does not make sense in regards to the green agenda to have a shutdown over Christmas now."

Green campaigners say the Government must ensure Britain has a public transport network that runs every day of the year. Stephen Joseph, head of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: "It is time that not just the public transport companies but the Department for Transport reconsider this."

Rail companies had resisted the introduction of Boxing Day services, but senior figures in the industry admit the case for running services on 26 December is compelling. More than 1.2 billion passengers used the rail network last year, which is close to the level of demand seen in 1946, when the it was considerably larger. Engineers can also replace points in just eight hours, meaning less time is needed for engineering works. In the past, a similar task took a day and a half.

The industry is prepared to hold talks on the possibility of launching Christmas services next year, but needs the involvement of all of Britain's franchise holders and support from the Government, which may have to provide operators with an additional subsidy. "The subsidy is a big issue," said a source in the rail industry. First TransPennine Express, which runs services in the north of England, is keen to run services connecting Leeds, York and even Liverpool, but it needs guarantees that other companies will follow suit so passengers will be able to board connecting trains. Virgin Trains also said it was interested in running services.

But the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) warned that the business case for running Christmas services was still doubtful. A spokesman said: "To greatly increase the level of train services on Boxing Day would require a comprehensive, industry-wide review involving not only train operators but a major change of practice by Network Rail who usually carry out... engineering works at this time, and the Department for Transport."

A change to future franchise agreements could force companies to run Boxing Day services, but the DfT said it had no plans to alter agreements. A spokesman said: "Our position has not changed... and we have no plans to specify that all franchise-holders run services on Boxing Day."

European trains: Holiday services over the festive season

Republic of Ireland No train operators provide any services on Christmas Day or Boxing Day.

Germany A full service on the national rail network on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day, with timetable alterations but no overall reduction over Christmas. In Berlin, the overground S-Bahn and underground U-Bahn services run a full service.

France The state rail network, SNCF, operates a substantial service over Christmas Dayand Boxing Day. In Paris, the Métro runs normally.

Italy The state rail network, Ferrovia dello Stato, operates a close to normal service on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The Rome subway runs normally.

Spain The national rail network, RENFE, runs a full service, while the Madrid subway operates a skeleton Sunday timetable.

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