As the government appoints a Christmas travel Tsar, the leading train operator Avanti West Coast has announced that the final two weeks of 2020 will be classed “off-peak” – cutting travel costs for some users by half or more.
From Friday18 December until New Year’s Day, the inter-city operator operator will be withdrawing peak fares. The aim is “to give customers greater flexibility and help maintain social distancing onboard its trains”.
In addition, the train firm – which runs from London Euston to the West Midlands, northwest England and southern Scotland, has finally put Advance tickets on sale for late December.
On the flagship route between London to Manchester, the Anytime fare of £180 will be abolished for the last 14 days of 2020. The flexible off-peak price will be £66.40. But Advance tickets are widely available at £44.50 one-way – £20 less than the lowest previously offered for the journey.
“Customers are strongly advised to plan ahead as well as make a seat reservation for their journey,” says Avanti West Coast. Like other inter-city operators it has cut capacity on trains by around half during the coronavirus pandemic.
As many of the 19 million people without access to a car scramble for tickets, there is mounting concern about the pressure that the so-called “Christmas Ease” of travel restrictions from 23 to 27 December will put on the nation’s transport system – particularly the rail network.
All the existing and planned rules designed to minimise journeys will be lifted for the five days.
But there are no trains on Christmas Day itself and only a handful of local and airport services on Boxing Day.
In addition, widespread engineering work will disrupt services on 27 December, with the London hub of the East Coast main line, King's Cross, closed completely until New Year’s Eve.
Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail and a widely respected figure in the rail industry, has been appointed “Christmas travel tsar" to try to minimise disruption.
The prospect has been raised of “relief” trains on the key dates, but the complexity of the scheduling system together with train crew rosters will make this difficult.
The transport secretary, Grant 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.
“We are currently developing a plan focused on tackling disruption, including running longer trains and relaxing rules to allow more types of coaches to run, and will publish further details next week, once demand is clearer.”
But some train operators are still unable to sell Advance tickets because timetables have yet to be finalised. For example CrossCountry, which runs inter-city services that do not start or end in London, cannot yet sell seats between Birmingham and Newcastle on 27 December.