Travelling by train this winter is about to get a lot worse

A winter wave of line closures, strikes and speed restrictions is set to disrupt rail services for the rest of 2018, with continued uncertainty about what services will operate over Christmas and the new year.

Commuters, festive travellers and passengers heading for airports all face widespread disruption for the remainder of the year. 

The autumnal effects of “leaves on the line”, Network Rail engineering projects on major routes and continuing strikes over “driver-only operation” have created an unprecedented amount of disruption in the build-up to Christmas.

And with Network Rail yet to reveal the precise scale of its engineering plans, most train operators still do not know what services they will be able to run after 21 December.

One certainty: promised new trains will not be running on the East Coast Main Line.

This week, rail passengers in southeast London, Surrey and Kent can expect extended journey times and missed station stops because of leaves on the line reducing adhesion.

Southeastern, the train operator, said: “The leaf-fall is expected to be most significant over the coming days – and as such, Southeastern will be running a revised off-peak metro timetable until Friday 16 November.

“The amended timetable has been produced in order to affect the fewest number of passengers, whilst enabling a significant increase in punctuality for passengers overall.

“Drivers need more time to stop and start the trains as the wheels have less grip on the tracks. These timetable changes give them the extra time they need to drive the trains safely.”

Even before the customary Christmas and new year rail shutdowns, weekend engineering work over the next few weeks will affect millions of passengers.

The only trains running from London Liverpool Street on 17 and 18 November will be on the line to Cambridge and Stansted Airport.

Passengers to and from Colchester, Ipswich, Norwich and Southend will have to travel on the central line of the London Underground to Newbury Park, from where there will be buses to Ingatestone in Essex – the station where rail services resume. Journey times to Colchester will more than double.

Over the same weekend, engineering work in south London means the Gatwick Express from London Victoria to the Sussex airport will not run on Saturday 17 or Sunday 18 November.

On Saturday 17 and the morning of Sunday 18 November, the East Coast Main Line will be closed between Peterborough and Doncaster.

Trains from London King’s Cross to Yorkshire, Newcastle and Scotland will be diverted via Lincoln, adding an hour or more to journey times.

Alternative trains will continue to run from London Bridge to Gatwick Airport. The same closure will take place over the following two weekends.

The line between Bristol’s two main stations, Temple Meads and Parkway, remains closed until Monday 26 November, as work continues to expand the link to four tracks. 

In Scotland, the line between Perth and Inverness will be closed from Friday 23 to Tuesday 27 November. 

The work is a precursor to an intense spell of engineering work over Christmas and new year, when demand is lowest. Network Rail will spend £148m on more than 330 separate projects, employing 25,000 engineers.

There will be widespread disruption at four London termini: Euston, Liverpool Street, Paddington and Victoria. Travellers in northwest England will also be affected by work in Manchester and Liverpool.

Andy Thomas, managing director of strategic operations at Network Rail, said: “We know that our railway is up to 50 per cent quieter than usual during the festive period, so taking on and delivering these huge transformational schemes at this time of year minimises our impact on passengers who, so research shows, understand the need for such activity.

“While most of the network is open for business as usual, some routes are heavily affected and so we strongly advise passengers to plan ahead.”

But it is impossible for many passengers to plan ahead because Network Rail has not yet revealed which trains it will allow operators to run from 22 December onwards.

CrossCountry, East Midlands Trains, Grand Central, Great Western, Greater Anglia, Hull Trains, TransPennine Express and Virgin Trains say they expect timetables for 22-28 December to be available from Tuesday 13 November, and those for new year to be revealed on Tuesday 20 November.

On some shorter journeys, there is even less notice. Govia Thameslink, which runs almost one-quarter of the UK’s trains on Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express services, said it still does not know what trains it will run beyond the end of November. It is telling passengers: “We expect correct information to be available from Tuesday 20 November.”

The same pattern of 10 days’ advance warning will continue through to February.

A Network Rail spokesperson said: “Because of the continued high workload for the rail industry’s timetable planners, the finalisation timetables continues to be completed around six weeks ahead of the date of travel, rather than the industry norm of 12 weeks.

“The industry is working hard to return to publishing confirmed timetables 12 weeks out as quickly as possible.”

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, representing train operators, said: “We know people want to make plans for Christmas and that’s why the rail industry has worked together to put in place special arrangements so that nobody loses out due to the shorter notice confirmation of timetables.”

One certainty is that passengers on the East Coast Main Line will not now be travelling on the promised new trains between London, Leeds and Hull this year.

The Azuma Intercity Express Programme trains were due to be introduced from early December. But the new rolling stock has caused interference with signalling systems.

London North Eastern Railway (LNER), the newly nationalised operator on the UK’s flagship route, told Rail magazine: “We are introducing them in 2019. The reason is it will give customers more confidence and we can prepare properly.”

Passengers on Northern rail and South Western Railway face further disruption because of strikes. 

The RMT union is staging industrial action on Northern rail every Saturday until the end of the year in a dispute over driver-only operation of trains.

The RMT’s general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “We thank the public for their support and understanding throughout this dispute over rail safety and access, and the union remains ready for genuine and serious talks.” 

Northern rail typically runs 30 per cent of trains on strike days, warning: “On those routes where we are able to operate trains, we expect all services to be extremely busy.”

The RMT union has also called strikes on South Western Railway on the last two Saturdays in November over the same issue.

The train operator, which runs to and from Britain’s busiest station, London Waterloo, said: “We have guaranteed a guard to be rostered on every single service, and our growth plans mean more guards, not fewer.

“It is time for the union to stop spreading myths and causing misery to our customers and colleagues, and commit to resolving this dispute.”

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