The largest rail strikes since 1989 have frequently crippled services since they began in June this year, at points leaving just a fifth of trains running, while other lines have seen longlasting disruption since the emergence of Covid-19.
Unless employers and ministers can strike a deal with unions, travellers’ woes will become triple-pronged in the months ahead – with engineering disruption now set to commence on New Year’s Eve as part of the first phase of the government’s Northern Powerhouse Rail project.
Between Christmas and Easter, which falls in early April next year, there will be just 15 days without engineering works on key northern networks.
That includes the busiest line in the north of England – which runs from Manchester to York via Leeds and Huddersfield and typically carries one in 12 of the country’s rail passengers, hitting 137 million in the year prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 76-mile line will be fully electrified, and speeds will rise from 70mph to 110mph, under the multibillion-pound Transpennine Route Upgrade, the completion date of which has been pushed back from 2024 to between 2036 and 2041.
“This is full-scale open heart surgery on a patient that is running a marathon,” Rob McIntosh, the eastern region managing director for Network Rail, told The Sunday Times, adding: “The key is that this disruption is planned in sufficient time for passengers.”
The disruption will start with three days of closure around Leeds from New Year’s Eve, and a nine-day suspension from 4 February between Huddersfield and Leeds, with the most severe closure impacting stations between Huddersfield and Manchester from 11 March to 6 April.
“This has been planned for about a decade but the scale of it, coming on top of all the recent problems with TransPennine and Northern, is going to make passengers really hurt,” Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, the official passenger watchdog, told the paper.
Additionally, for 16 days from 4 March, upgrades to the Carstairs junction in Scotland will impact the West Coast Main Line, while the Scarborough line from York will also close for four days at Malton from 31 January.
Meanwhile, the RMT union has warned that tens of thousands of employees across Network Rail and 14 train operating companies will stage a series of 48-hour walk-outs, on 3, 4, 6 and 7 January.
While RMT members voted earlier this month to reject an offer by Network Rail, members of Unite and the white-collar Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) unions have both opted to accept the latest offer by the rail infrastructure provider, but separate disputes with train company executives are still ongoing.