Rail commuters returning to work across Britain this week face days of delays and cancellations with ScotRail becoming the latest operator to move to a revised timetable due to Covid-related staff shortages.
As some employees prepare go back into the office after the Christmas and New Year break while others continue to work from home, new figures showed nearly a third of services have been axed at some stations in recent days.
Nearly one in ten rail staff across all train firms in the UK are thought to be off with sickness including Covid, while major engineering works on key commuter routes are scheduled to continue until midway through next week.
ScotRail will be making temporary changes to its timetable from tomorrow lasting until at least January 28 after scores of services were cancelled in recent days while hundreds of its staff self-isolate or are off sick.
Nine routes in and out of Glasgow’s main two stations will be on a reduced timetable along with three routes to and from Edinburgh Waverley. The operator’s latest data from last Wednesday showed 320 of its staff were absent.
This graphic shows the planned Southern closures until January 4 – a period that has now been extended until January 10
Rail firms all over the country have been removing hundreds of trains from their timetables in recent weeks as the Omicron isolation staffing crisis deepens for industries after days of short notice cancellations.
A total of 23 UK train companies from Southern to Merseyrail and Great Western Railway to Northern have either already reduced services or will do so in the coming days in response to pandemic-related staff shortages.
How Covid-related staff shortages are affecting train services across UK
- Avanti West Coast: Says it is ‘doing everything we can to run our full timetable but there may be some short notice cancellations’. All peak restrictions removed until January 4.
- c2c: Normal service.
- Caledonian Sleeper: Normal service.
- Chiltern Railways: Operator warns it ‘may have to make some short notice changes to our timetable’ because of the ‘impact of Covid-19 on our train crews’
- CrossCountry: Removed around 50 trains from its timetables until January 8, and warns of disruption ‘until further notice’. Tells passengers to avoid travelling on New Year’s Eve due to RMT strike.
- East Midlands Railway: Revised timetable due to a ‘high level of staff sickness including drivers and train crew’. Some services being replaced by buses.
- Eurostar: Normal service.
- Gatwick Express: No services ‘until further notice’ because of the ‘ongoing effect of coronavirus isolation and sickness’.
- Grand Central: Normal service.
- Great Northern: Reduced service on all routes ‘until further notice’ because of the ‘significant ongoing impact of coronavirus, particularly in terms of staff sickness’.
- Great Western Railway: Cancellations because of ‘rising numbers of staff unavailable to work due to self-isolation requirements’ .
- Greater Anglia: Some services removed from timetable ‘due to falling passenger numbers and ‘to plan for our staff being affected by the Omicron variant’.
- Heathrow Express: Normal service.
- Hull Trains: A temporary timetable will operate until February 12 to ‘minimise disruption’.
- LNER: Reduced timetable up until at least January 7 ‘due to a shortage of train crew as a result of an increase in the number of staff self-isolating with Covid-19’.
- London Northwestern Railway: Services are ‘subject to cancellation or alteration’ due to a shortage of train drivers.
- Lumo: Normal service.
- Merseyrail: Some trains will be cancelled on certain lines from ‘today until further notice’ because of the ‘impact of Covid-19 and other sickness affecting staff availability’.
- Northern: Operating ‘several amended timetables’ because of ‘Covid and its impact on the availability of our train crew’.
- ScotRail: It is ‘being forced to bring in a temporary timetable’ until January 28 ‘as we continue to see colleagues off sick because of Covid-19’.
- South Western Railway: Services subject to ‘short-term alterations’ due to the ‘impact of the Omicron variant on staff numbers’ with new timetable coming in January 17.
- Southeastern: Warns that services may change at short notice if there ‘may be occasions when our staff are sick or self-isolating due to Covid-19’.
- Southern: Cancels a raft of services and its hub at London Victoria station will stay closed until January 10 ‘owing to the significant ongoing impact of coronavirus’.
- Stansted Express: Half-hourly service running.
- Thameslink: Reduced service on all routes ‘until further notice’ because of the ‘significant ongoing impact of coronavirus, particularly in terms of staff sickness’.
- TransPennine Express: Services may be cancelled at short notice ‘due to lack of available staff’.
- Transport for London: Mostly normal service, but delays in recent days on Bakerloo and Metropolitan lines due to cancellations.
- Transport for Greater Manchester: Reduced Metrolink services ‘due to the increasing impact of Covid-19 on tram driver staffing levels’.
- Transport for Wales: ‘Emergency timetable’ to ‘prepare for an expected rise in staff shortages due to the emergence of the Omicron variant’.
- West Midlands Railway: Some trains ‘may be cancelled at short notice’ because ‘many colleagues are currently unable to attend work’.
Among those also impacted include East Midlands Railway, Thameslink, Avanti West Coast, Greater Anglia, Hull Trains, London Northwestern Railway, Great Northern, Thameslink and TransPennine Express.
The Rail Delivery Group said nearly one in ten staff (8.9 per cent) across all UK train firms were off sick in the week to last Wednesday due to all causes including Covid – up from 8.7 per cent last week and 7.6 per cent last month.
It comes after analysis by ontimetrains.co.uk yesterday found passengers at Manchester Airport have been among the worst hit, where 30 per cent of scheduled services were axed on New Year’s Day.
On New Year’s Eve 30 per cent were also cancelled and 26 per cent on 30 December.
Nearby Manchester Piccadilly, a key north-south and east-west hub serving the West Coast Mainline, was also among the worst for cancellations, with 16 per cent, 20 per cent and 15 per cent of services axed respectively on those days.
Elsewhere, Birmingham Moor Street had 17 per cent, 26 per cent and 22 per cent cancelled respectively.
For Cardiff Central, the figures were 14 per cent, 19 per cent and 14 per cent while at Edinburgh 23 per cent of services were cancelled on 31 December and 20 per cent the day before.
At some stations, less than 50 per cent of services arrived on time on some days.
On one day at Manchester Airport, December 19, a staggering 39 per cent of services were cancelled, with 35 per cent the day before, causing havoc for air passengers trying to reach the airport by train.
One of the highest cancellations figures recorded was 53 per cent of services at Manchester Oxford Road on 19 December. On that day, just 20 per cent of services arrived on time.
The rate of cancellations does not bode well for commuters looking to return to the network in the coming days, with large swathes returning to work from tomorrow following the Christmas period.
Industry body the Rail Delivery Group, which represents operators, insisted only about 5 per cent of services across the whole mainline network were axed on New Year’s Day.
Operator Southern has announced that no trains will run into or from London Victoria, Britain’s second busiest station, until January 10. This is due to high levels of ‘coronavirus isolation and sickness’ among staff.
Many other operators have cancelled trains due to staff being off sick or isolating amid soaring Covid infections.
They include Avanti West Coast, Greater Anglia, London North Eastern Railway, Northern, ScotRail, TransPennine Express and Transport for Wales.
At least nearly one in ten rail staff across all train firms are thought to be off with Covid-related sickness.
Services were also hit by a 24-hour strike among CrossCountry staff on New Year’s Eve, orchestrated by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union.
The dispute involved train managers and senior conductors in a row over the role of guards.
Further disruption will be caused while Network Rail finishes the last of 370 engineering works projects scheduled over the Christmas and New Year period.
Passengers on the West Coast Mainline face disruption between tomorrow and 12 January while flood protection upgrades are carried out between Milton Keynes and Rugby.
Trains will be diverted via Northampton, adding at least 25 minutes to journeys.
It means London Northwestern Railway will run fewer services between Crewe and London Euston, with passengers needing to change trains at Rugby.
James Dean, Network Rail’s West Coast South route director, confirmed the works would mean fewer services, more tightly packed carriages and longer journey times.
Meanwhile upgrades to signalling and track on the Transpennine Route will hit services in and out of Manchester until at least tomorrow.
Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Transport Focus, called on operators to temporarily withdraw some services on a planned basis.
He said this would avoid chaotic last-minute cancellations, adding: ‘These are harder for passengers to deal with and more likely to lead to overcrowding.’
A Rail Delivery Group spokesman said: ‘Our colleagues, like those in other industries, have been impacted by the virus.
How other countries compare to UK’s isolation requirements
The UK is being urged to follow the lead of others and cut Covid isolation requirements down to five days from the current seven. Here are the requirements in the other countries with five day limits:
Americans who test positive for Covid only have to isolate for five days, as long as they have no symptoms. Those who leave isolation must still wear a mask everywhere – even at home around others – for at least five more days, according to official guidance. People who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive can also leave isolation after five days of being alerted.
Greece followed the US lead in halving quarantine for people who test positive. According to new guidance by Greece’s public health agency, people infected with Covid can return to work after five days if they have no or mild symptoms, and must wear high protection masks.
Yesterday, France announced that fully vaccinated people who test positive will only have to isolate for seven days, and can leave quarantine after five days if they show a negative test. People who test positive for the virus, but who are not fully vaccinated, can leave quarantine after seven days if they have a negative test.
Self-isolate for ten days after a positive test or when your symptoms start, although negative tests on days six and seven mean you can leave the house early.
‘While we’re working hard to provide a reliable train service to key workers and other passengers with reduced staff, some rail companies are introducing amended timetables owing to much less demand for train services.’
It comes as France yesterday became the latest country to introduce a five-day isolation period for those with Covid, as pressure grew on UK ministers to follow suit.
Despite cases surging in Europe, French authorities cut the isolation period from ten days to five for those who are double-vaccinated and produce a negative test.
While England’s quarantine rules remain in place – negative tests on days six and seven mean you can leave the house – the number of NHS staff off sick or isolating continues to rocket.
In recent days the number of NHS workers staying at home for Covid reasons has doubled.
NHS figures show that on December 12, NHS England recorded 12,240 staff absent due to Covid sickness or self-isolation. Two weeks later, on December 26, this had doubled to 24,632, and by New Year’s Eve it had doubled again to almost 50,000 – accounting for nearly half of all staff absences, The Sunday Times reported.
Chris Hopson, chairman of NHS Providers, said staff absences were having a greater impact than during last January’s Covid wave. He tweeted: ‘Staff flat out, especially given level of staff absences. We will need to ask them to perform flexible heroics again if hospital Covid numbers continue to rise. We can’t keep doing this.’
America was the first country to shorten the isolation period, followed by Greece and France.
Professor Tim Spector, who leads the Zoe Covid Study at King’s College London, has described the five-day period as ‘sensible’ as long as the individual has had two negative lateral flow tests.
‘A reduction in isolation days would help many frontline services by allowing low-risk staff to go into work and avoid people staying home unnecessarily,’ Professor Spector said.
But allowing people to stop isolating five days after they experience Covid symptoms could actually spread the virus and worsen NHS staff shortages, the UK Health Security Agency said.
It said that between 10 and 30 per cent of people would still be infectious after five days, compared with 5 per cent under the seven-day rule.
Health minister Ed Argar said the Government had not yet received scientific advice on cutting the isolation period.