Some Christmas rail engineering works will start later and hundreds of miles of roadworks will be paused to minimise possible disruption during the UK’s 23-27 December travel window, the government has announced.
However, ministers have decided not to cancel long-planned works, with advance bookings and polling suggesting that festive travel will remain subdued on rail and road.
Announcing the measures, transport secretary Grant Shapps said the government was “working with transport operators to help people see their loved ones safely.”
The biggest work, the closure of the East Coast main line between London and Scotland, will start later to allow for some train services in and out of Kings Cross on Christmas Eve. But it will remain closed for the remainder of the five days when the government and devolved administrations are easing Covid-19 restrictions to allow up to three households to mix.
Work is now planned to end slightly earlier on the West Coast main line, allowing more trains between cities on the London-Glasgow route from 10am on 27 December.
Passengers have been urged to plan ahead and book early. Longer trains will run on some services and rail passengers who had already booked tickets before the Christmas rules were announced can amend them without the normal administration fees, Shapps said.
Shapps said: “With many people carefully considering whether to travel to see loved ones this Christmas, we’re taking steps to try to ease journeys.
He added: “We ask everyone to closely consider their journey, plan and book ahead, be patient, and be considerate of fellow passengers – and particularly staff who have worked so hard all year – by following the guidance carefully, including keeping space and wearing a face covering on public transport.”
Rail sources indicated that bookings to date did not indicate any rush to travel in the Christmas period, with trains far below capacity even with social-distancing requirements. Passenger numbers were about 22% of pre-Covid times in the November lockdown, and about a third of normal in October.
Highways England has agreed to lift around 50% more roadworks than originally planned, with about 778 miles of works now to be completed or paused during the window on motorways and A-roads.
An AA survey found comparatively few people were expecting to drive to see relatives this Christmas, despite the flexibility in lockdown rules. The motoring organisation’s research suggested that there would be just 7.9m cars on the road, fewer than half the 17m in the same period in 2019.
Labour said the plan left “many unanswered questions”.
Jim McMahon, shadow transport secretary, said the government should ensure engineering works did not clash with the window and that all peak fares were suspended during the travelling period. He added: “We must not lose sight of the fact that Covid has not gone away. Ministers must take charge of the situation to ensure passengers do not face Christmas travel chaos and risks to their health on overcrowded services.”
Shapps last week appointed Sir Peter Hendy, Network Rail chairman, as a “Christmas travel tsar” to scrutinise the collective industry’s plans.
Hendy said the measures announced today would help ease congestion but he would keep working with operators on any further actions needed.
Most long-distance rail and coach operators already now require advance booking and seat reservations to ensure social distancing. The Rail Delivery Group said train operators had improved cleaning and passenger information to allow people to travel with confidence, but added: “This year more than ever we’re asking people not to turn up at a station and hope for the best”.