Weekend rail closures could be scrapped if demand for leisure travel surges when lockdown restrictions ease.
Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy said there is “no point” in carrying out engineering work on dates when trains would be packed.
His organisation normally carries out much of its maintenance and upgrade work requiring line closures over weekends and public holidays, to minimise the number of passengers affected.
This policy has caused frustration among leisure travellers for years.
Sir Peter believes the lifting of coronavirus restrictions could result in weekends being busier than weekdays this summer, leading to a new strategy.
Speaking at the National Rail Recovery Conference, he said: “If Saturday and Sunday get really busy in the summer, well we should do engineering work some other time, shouldn’t we, if that’s going to be how people want to use the railway.
“There’s no point in us saying, ‘actually, we planned engineering works on a Sunday 18 weeks in advance and look at all these people who want to travel, well we don’t want to take them’.
“We should be prepared this summer and in holiday seasons to say, ‘OK, they want to come and we’ll take them, because actually that’s what the railway is there for’.
“If we’re dextrous and we’re thoughtful and we recognise the changes that are happening, I think the railway will quickly regain where it should be in public perception, which is people who recognise what the country wants to do and be prepared to do it.”
Summer 2020 saw huge demand for day trips to beach locations as people rushed out of urban areas once the first lockdown ended.
“We saw some really packed trains with no social distancing going to Blackpool and to Bournemouth and to Brighton,” Sir Peter said.
“That might be a really interesting place for the railway to do some good business.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we found on summer Saturdays that actually we have more demand on the railway than we did during the working week.
“And if that’s true, that’s not anything that we can’t cope with because that was true in the 50s and 60s.”
Sir Peter predicted that travel by people working from offices will “come back”, but will be “permanently lower” than pre-pandemic levels, with a reduction of up to 40%.
He agreed with a suggestion that train interiors should focus more on comfort than capacity as a result of the change in travel patterns.
“People are going to be much less willing to cram in and have their nose stuck in somebody’s armpit,” he said.
“Our reaction to being in crowded places now is a much greater level of discomfort than it used to be.”