Ministers in last-minute dash to stop Christmas rail chaos

Urgent plans to prevent Christmas getaway chaos are being prepared by ministers amid fears that huge numbers of people will be unable to join their families during the five-day festive relaxation of coronavirus restrictions. 

Britain’s first Christmas transport tsar has been appointed to prevent meltdown on the rail network and given the power to force train firms to lay on extra carriages following warnings that social distancing will prove impossible.

Advance rail tickets for the holiday period went on sale on Friday, far later than usual, giving ministers less than a month to plan for the rush once they have an indication of how many people plan to travel. Demand is likely to outstrip supply. 

Sir Peter Hendy, the former Olympics Tube boss who is currently the chairman of Network Rail, has been asked to examine whether road, rail and air links will be fit for purpose when festive travel is crunched into the period from December 23 to 27.

His biggest challenge will be ensuring the smooth running of the rail network, which is normally used by 2.2 million people to get home between Christmas and New Year, many travelling from or through London.

Train operators have warned that it will be impossible to accommodate so many passengers without breaking social distancing rules, with many trains normally standing room only during the Christmas break. Prices of rental cars have rocketed because of a surge in demand from people who do not trust the railways to get them home.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said plans to avoid overcrowding would include "running longer trains and relaxing rules to allow more types of coaches to run" as well as potentially requiring passengers to pre-book all seats.

Earlier this week, Mr Shapps urged people "not to travel" where possible due to the train network’s current "limitations" in handling large numbers.

Sir Peter will be able to tell operators to make improvements to timetables and will also report back to ministers about where on the network he thinks potential problems may arise.

The Department for Transport said he had been asked to "rigorously scrutinise the winter preparedness plans of all transport operators to ensure journeys are smooth and safe".

Among the measures being put in place are moving seasonal rail works, which traditionally start on Christmas Day, so they do not clash with the Covid break. However, King’s Cross Station, one of the busiest in the country, is currently set to be closed for six days from Christmas Day. 

The Government also announced that it has cleared 500 miles of roadworks on motorways and A-roads.

However, significant problems remain. Passenger groups have warned that cramming all Christmas travel into five days – including Christmas Day and Boxing Day, when few trains will be running – would leave people unable to get home unless extra services are put on.

King's Cross Station is set to be closed for six days from Christmas Day

Credit: Geoff Pugh

Rail sources have told The Telegraph that operators are particularly concerned about December 27, which will have a pared down timetable because it is a Sunday, when almost everyone who has travelled to see family by train will be making their return journey.

The East Coast Main Line and services out of London Waterloo are among the lines due to be closed or running reduced timetables between Christmas Day and New Year.

Mr Shapps said: "As some advance tickets go on sale and people begin to plan their journeys, we are closely assessing demand on the network and have already taken actions to minimise potential disruption."

The Department for Transport said it will conduct analysis on sales of advance tickets this weekend alongside surveying of the public and the use of travel data to help determine the demand for travel over the Christmas period.

It said this will "inform the further measures taken to help people travel safely and with minimal disruption", which will be published next week.

Sir Peter’s brief will also include making sure councils have enough gritters and snow ploughs to keep the roads clear. 

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