Staff shortages caused by a jump in Covid cases have started to impact UK train services ahead of the annual festive getaway, with rail operators across the country announcing cancellations for the rest of the week until Christmas.
Britain’s major long-distance operators are among the most affected by employees having to isolate at home because they or someone close to them has the virus.
LNER has taken out 16 trains a day until 24 December between London, Lincoln and Leeds to cover “an increased level of absence in drivers and train managers due to coronavirus”, and warned it may have to make more cancellations at short notice for staffing reasons.
On the other major line between London and Scotland, Avanti West Coast said services were “subject to short-notice cancellations and alterations due to the impact of Covid-19 on train crew availability”, and passengers should check before they travel.
Crosscountry said services were likely to start later and finish earlier, and some trains could have fewer carriages than normal.
ScotRail had already cancelled hundreds of services a week earlier due to staff shortages, after tighter rules in Scotland on self-isolation after contact with people with Covid increased the number of absences.
Northern, Southern and TransPennine Express all warned of disruption due to staff sickness, while Greater Anglia said it was cancelling services because of a lack of demand, with most rail commuters now following government advice to work from home.
Transport for London said about 500 of its frontline staff were currently off work due to a Covid-related illness. A spokesperson said: “The overall proportion of staff currently off work remains low, and we continue to do what we can to mitigate the impact and minimise the effect on our customers.”
A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, said: “As we showed last year during the pandemic, we will ensure that key workers can get to where they need to be.
“We aren’t able to run every train as planned at the moment but … we will be working hard to give clear, accurate and timely information, and people should check before they travel.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “It’s better for some services to be temporarily withdrawn on a planned basis than to have chaotic last-minute cancellations.
“These are harder for passengers to deal with and more likely to lead to overcrowding. Passengers need clear, reliable information to plan their journeys. Anyone who has already bought tickets must be told and offered alternatives or their money back.”
No trains will run on Christmas or Boxing Day as usual, while engineering work over the festive period will disrupt services into stations including Leeds, Bristol Parkway, London Victoria, and London St Pancras.
Covid absences are also affecting parcel delivery firms.
Royal Mail said a few local offices might not be able to deliver mail six days a week, due partly to Covid-related self-isolation or higher-than-usual levels of staff absences. A spokesperson said: “We are providing targeted support to the local offices affected … we apologise to customers for any inconvenience.”
Hermes said it was experiencing delays in some parts of Scotland, and that the situation was being exacerbated by Scotland’s stricter Covid rules, under which all members of a household are required to isolate for ten days if anyone tests positive for Covid, regardless of their vaccination status, or if they continue to test negative for the virus.
The company said: “Our couriers are working hard to address this and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
Covid-related staff absences have also hit sectors including hospitality, theatre and tourism, with at least five national attractions having to shut in the run-up to Christmas.