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Rail travellers of Britain: are you looking forward to December? Me neither

Christmas every day? Festive decorations at London Euston, where no long-distance trains will run on 3 December (Simon Calder)
Christmas every day? Festive decorations at London Euston, where no long-distance trains will run on 3 December (Simon Calder)

Travel is all about looking ahead: around the next bend, beyond the next horizon, ahead to adventures next week, next month or next year.

Yet even as an eternal optimist, I find it difficult (but not impossible) to find much to smile about for travellers in Britain in December. Never before have I seen such an advent calendar of misery in the final month of the year.

The omens in the dying days of November have not been auspicious. At around 5am on Tuesday morning I found myself on a train from London Paddington that was delayed because of “congestion”. Heaven help us during the rush hours.

Later, my Avanti West Coast train to Manchester was cancelled because of a shortage of train crew. Unsurprisingly, the following service was “full and standing”, to use railway parlance, and arrived late.

All this while the railways are running “normally” – which, from the start of December, they will not be.

The latest overtime ban by train drivers belonging to the train drivers’ union, Aslef, begins at midnight on 1 December.

You might shrug and say, “So what?” Any industry should be able run sensibly even if staff exercise their right not to work on days off.

Not the railways of Britain in their current shape. For the first nine days of the month, the ban on “rest-day working” will have mixed impacts on passengers. If you rely upon a train operator that in turn relies upon train drivers working overtime to run a full service, then you are already in trouble.

Widespread cancellations have already been made on operators such as Thameslink, and long-suffering TransPennine Express passengers should also be prepared for disappearing trains.

The official term for the Aslef move is “action short of a strike”. The union says the impact of drivers declining the offer of more work for more cash shows the shocking state of the railways. If only train firms would employ more staff, there would be no problem.

Aslef – which has played brilliantly on behalf of its members in its negotiations with rail companies since privatisation – knows there is much more to the present malaise. Covid played havoc with normal driver training, and restrictive agreements limit the train operators’ flexibility to cover the schedules.

The overtime ban is just a start. In its quest for a no-strings pay rise, followed by individual rail firms paying extra for workplace reforms, Aslef is staging a series of rolling strikes that will ripple across England (and affect parts of Wales and Scotland) from Saturday, 2 December. One region at a time will be deprived of all or most trains.

The industrial action ends on 9 December. The following day, cuts in timetabled trains will begin, most notably on the north Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds. TransPennine Express says that cutting the number of services from four to three an hour will actually improve service, as will removing the newest trains from the fleet.

The publicly-owned intercity rail network for the North, whose new bosses took over in May, was dealt a dreadful hand. This is the least damaging way to try to restore a decent service.

Is there anything the December traveller might smile about? Well, not the festive engineering works, which will be even more debilitating than usual on Christmas Eve: the final advent calendar day sees the closure of London Paddington and London King’s Cross.

But I confidently predict that, by then, members of the RMT union – who have been in dispute for even longer than Aslef – will have accepted their pay deal, and received bumper backdated wage increases in time for Christmas.

Time, perhaps, to start thinking about the passenger.