Christmas trains guide: How to navigate festive rail disruption from Boxing Day to New Year

The Independent has ranked the festive rail engineering work in order of disruptive potential

 

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 24 December 2018 10:39
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Christmas travel chaos: Everything you need to know about getting around the UK this festive season

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, in terms of the usual festive season travel misery. Early this evening, rail services and stations across Britain will start shutting down. As is now traditional, no trains will run on Christmas Day, and very few on Boxing Day.

But when 27 December dawns on Thursday, many closures will continue because of engineering works. On some main lines there are no trains until the New Year. And a strike affecting two of the UK’s biggest train operators will also cause disruption.

Simon Calder has been assessing the key problem areas – and can provide some alternatives.

First: why Christmas?

Unlike the roads, where big projects on motorways are lifted for Christmas and the New Year, on the railways the festive season is seen as prime time for engineering works. This is the time of year when demand is lowest, and therefore when wholesale line closures will affect the least passengers. So 25,000 workers will be deployed on Network Rail projects across Britain costing £148m.

The work is intended to produce faster and more reliable journeys, and boost the capacity of the UK’s Victorian-era rail network. And that’s why services will be winding down early. If you miss the 7.45pm from London Euston to Manchester on 24 December there won’t be any more for two and a half days.

Where is disruption worst?

Network Rail has produced a top six of the biggest projects and the highest disruption – which in most cases will continue all the way through to New Year’s Day. And I have ranked the festive engineering works in order from six to one based on the number of passengers affected.

6. Liverpool Lime Street and other nearby stations are heavily disrupted because of “the Weaver Wavertree resignalling programme” which moves all the control to the Manchester Rail Operating Centre over the festive period. Trains to and from Runcorn and Warrington will be affected – which means that Northern Rail, East Midlands Trains, Virgin Trains and London Northwestern passengers will need to check for changes.

5. The East Midlands Line is undergoing plenty of work between Bedford and Kettering, and between Luton and London – many services have been cancelled and those that do run will take longer.

4. Great Western Railway passengers from South Wales, the Cotswolds and the West of England will be intermittently cut off from London Paddington until the New Year. The first train from Penzance via Plymouth and Exeter to Paddington will be on the Friday morning (28 December), and when it does start up again the journey will take nearly an hour longer. The Heathrow Express is also periodically shutting down in sympathy

3. The West Coast Mainline, the spine of the nation, running from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland, will see sharply depleted services between now and the new year. The work is mainly in connection with the HS2 high-speed rail project, but there are many other locations including Milton Keynes, Cheshire and into North Wales.

2. Brighton, Gatwick and London Victoria are disconnected because of work at Battersea, which has closed the line between Clapham Junction – Britain’s busiest interchange station – and Victoria, which is the second-busiest station overall. This would be the festive worst, except that an alternative route via London Bridge is available.

1. Greater Anglia is the Christmas and New Year engineering work winner, with the biggest impact of all. The main line from East Anglia to London Liverpool Street is closed until 2 January. So travellers from Norwich, Ipswich and Colchester will have to take a train to Ingatestone in Essex, then a bus, then the London Underground – taking an hour longer than normal, and enduring a lot more hassle.

Waterloo - London's busiest station (Victoria Jones/PA Wire)

Elsewhere, there are also strikes to contend with…

On Thursday 27 December and New Year’s Eve, guards working for South Western Railway, which runs to and from Britain’s busiest station, London Waterloo, will strike again as part of a long-running dispute over the role of guards. Besides reducing frequency on main lines it will make life trickier for passengers from Devon and Cornwall who were planning to switch to South Western Railway between Exeter and London – because that route is one of many that is closed.

And on Northern Rail on 29 December, the 19th Saturday strike in a row on the same issue will see the majority of trains cancelled with very few services running after 5pm – affecting travellers from Merseyside to Tyneside.

What other Christmas Day transport options are there for people who don’t have cars?

There are only two domestic flights in the UK on Christmas Day: Heathrow to Manchester in the morning, Manchester to Heathrow in the afternoon. The fare is currently £557 return. Long-distance and airport bus services are ever-reliable on National Express and Megabus, with more links than ever on Christmas Day. Between Birmingham and Manchester, for example, both operators have five buses each way, taking about two hours with a fare as low as £13.

Not much local transport is operating on Christmas Day – no Tubes will run in London – but the shining exception is the Isle of Wight, where for the 10th Christmas in a row buses will be running on all the major routes.

Finally, after the extreme disruption at Gatwick in the last few days, how are the skies looking?

Gatwick is back to normal after three days of extreme disruption, and got through its busiest day of the winter on Sunday without undue problems. Some residual delays involving long-haul flights are continuing.

On Sunday evening Birmingham Airport was closed because of a temporary air-traffic control failure. A spokesperson from Birmingham Airport told The Independent that 27 flights to and from the airport were diverted or cancelled.

One Lufthansa jet was on its final approach but aborted the landing and returned to Frankfurt.

“The closure was due to an Air Traffic Control technical fault,” the airport said.

The main problems will arise after Christmas because of the returning crowds. The airports at Edinburgh and Luton will be especially busy on Friday 28 and Saturday 29 December, while other top airports will see the big homecoming in the New Year, on Wednesday 2 or Sunday 6 January.

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