In the busiest-ever Christmas for holidaymakers leaving Britain, hundreds of thousands of airline passengers will find rail links from London to the country’s two top airports severed.
Worst hit is Gatwick. The main line will be blocked at Purley for 10 days for engineering work. The last Gatwick Express of the year leaves Victoria station at 9.15pm on Christmas Eve, and services will re-start only on the morning of 4 January.
Normally around half-a-million passengers would be expected to use the train to reach the UK’s second-busiest airport in that time.
On Boxing Day, passengers will need to travel to East Grinstead, from where buses are being laid on. “This option would be more suited to those who do not require assistance and who have light luggage,” is the advice from Gatwick Express to passengers.
From 27 December onwards, a train service of sorts will resume to and from Gatwick airport, but it will take three times longer. Trains will run from Victoria to Horsham in Sussex, where they will reverse to complete the journey to the airport.
A spokesman for Gatwick airport said: “We recommend passengers check updates before they travel, plan their route carefully, and allow extra time if intending to travel by rail during this time.
"These works are an essential part of plans to double rail capacity at Gatwick by 2020.”
At Heathrow, which is also expecting record numbers of passengers this Christmas, the usual one-day rail closure on 25 December is being extended by a further three days. Neither Heathrow Express nor Heathrow Connect trains will run from Paddington station in London.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “The Piccadilly Line and additional bus and coach services will be operating. Passengers are advised to leave extra time when travelling to the airport.”
The train operator GWR says the closure is “Part of a large programme of engineering in the Thames Valley needed for the launch of Crossrail in 2019.”
Stephen Joseph, Director of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: "These engineering works will of course cause huge problems for travellers and I suspect the decision has been taken to inconvenience airline passengers, rather than inconvenience commuters.
“What these closures highlight, however, is the lack of surface transport options to both Heathrow and Gatwick, which is something the Government is still failing to address in its plans for airport expansion."
Passengers between London and the West of England and South Wales and the South West could experience doubled journey times. The line closure between Paddington and Slough that is taking out Heathrow’s rail services requires Inter-City trains to take circuitous routes to and from other London stations.
Trains to and from Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea will run via Banbury in Oxfordshire, and serve Marylebone station. Devon and Cornwall trains will use the line from Waterloo station via Basingstoke.
Anglo-Scottish day trains will be even busier than usual in the days before Christmas due to a strike by members of the RMT union. Caledonian Sleeper services linking London with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William have been cancelled on the evenings of 22 and 23 December.
The West Coast main line will be closed between Crewe and Stafford from mid-evening on Christmas Eve until the morning of 29 December. Trains will be re-routed on 27 and 28 December, with far fewer services from London to Birmingham and Manchester.
A similar shutdown applies on lines from London Liverpool Street to Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich. Many passengers will be obliged to take replacement buses.
Commuters in south-east London and Kent who are planning to work between Christmas and New Year will find normal services interrupted for 10 days. Three London termini - Cannon Street, Charing Cross and London Bridge - will be closed from the evening of Christmas Eve until 4 January.
The longest Christmas closure is in Lincolnshire, where the north-east of the county will be cut off from the rest of the rail network for over a fortnight. Network Rail says: “A 15-day closure of the line will see the replacement of much of the current signalling system.”
Network Rail will be desperate to make sure that the chaos after Christmas 2014 is not repeated. Last year, poorly managed engineering works on the lines from King's Cross and Paddington stations ended late, wrecking the travel plans for tens of thousands of travellers on the Saturday after Christmas.
The snarl-up was compounded by an instruction to passengers on the East Coast main line to go to Finsbury Park in north London, which could not cope with the numbers of travellers.
The Office of Rail Regulation concluded: “The overall service passengers received was not acceptable. It led to widespread confusion, frustration, disruption, discomfort and anxiety."
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