UK rail services to be reduced as demand plummets during coronavirus crisis

By Tom Pilgrim, PA
·3-min read

British rail services will be gradually reduced from next week as demand drops away during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said it had agreed with rail operators across the country to scale back timetables from Monday as people change their travel habits to help stop Covid-19 spreading.

Cores services will continue to run to help people attend medical appointments and allow emergency services and NHS staff get to work.

The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the public’s travel patterns has seen demand for rail travel decline by up to 69% on some routes, the DfT said.

The joint move from the Government and rail industry will also enable freight services to continue.

It follows speculation in the industry that a number of train operators are on the verge of being brought under Government control due to plummeting passenger numbers.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested to MPs on Tuesday that rail companies, as well as bus firms and airlines, could be temporarily nationalised to help them through the coronavirus outbreak.

Running reduced services will also help protect the welfare of frontline railway staff, the DfT said.

Changes to timetables will be kept under review, with there being a gradual move to widespread service reductions in the longer term.

To minimise disruption, services will be progressively cut back over the coming days, the DfT said.

Mr Shapps said the action was being taken to “protect the public” while still “ensuring keyworker heroes can get to their jobs to keep this nation running”.

“For passengers in crucial roles, including essential workers in our emergency services and NHS, alongside people who need to attend medical appointments or care for loved ones, these changes protect the services they rely on,” he added.

Transport Stock – Trains
Demand for rail travel has declined by up to 69% on some routes (PA/Lewis Stickley)

Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, said the measures would “preserve services so that we can continue to get key workers to where they need to be, deliver food to supermarkets and get fuel to power stations”.

He added: “This is not a decision we take lightly, however implementing these measures now will mean that we can continue to operate trains over a prolonged period with fewer railway workers, who like so many others are to be commended for putting the needs of the country first, and whose safety remains front of mind.”

Passengers are advised to check the National Rail Enquiries website before they travel, he said.

Similar reduction measures have been agreed by the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: “Constructive dialogue has been held with rail unions with discussion focused on protecting rail staff while they make a significant contribution to keeping passengers and goods moving as much as possible in these challenging circumstances.”

Ken Skates, Welsh Government Minister for Economy and Transport, said: “This action aims to balance the current significantly reduced levels of passenger demand as people follow the guidelines to socially isolate with the need to reduce the number of people required to run the network.”

The announcement comes after public transport operators already started slashing services due to the coronavirus.

Train, coach and bus frequencies are being cut amid the collapse in demand and Government advice on avoiding non-essential travel.

Northern Trains, South Western Railway, Govia Thameslink Railway and Great Western Railway said they were suspending or cancelling some services due to staff illness or to protect customers and employees.

Transport for London said it will close up to 40 London Underground stations until further notice while the Night Tube, which normally operates on Friday and Saturday nights, has been suspended.