May rail misery: Eight days of disruption facing passengers as strikes and engineering work combine

Rail passengers face eight days of disruption in early May as long-planned engineering work by Network Rail over the bank holiday weekend merges into the next round of industrial action by train drivers.

Key stretches of track will be closed from late Friday evening, 3 May, through to the start of service on Tuesday morning, 7 May. Network Rail says it will have 487 projects in operation over the weekend.

Network Rail’s system operator director, Anit Chandarana, said: “The vast majority of the railway will be open for business as normal. We know people want to travel by train and not replacement bus and we do our best to fit as much work as we can into these closures to minimise the impact on passengers and freight customers.

“The work this month will see new track laid on one of the busiest mixed-use railway in the world – the West Coast Main Line – along with work to replace worn out equipment at junctions at Crewe. We’ve also got more work to build a new station at Cambridge South.”

On Tuesday 7 May, a three-day succession of “rolling” strikes by train drivers belonging to the Aslef union in a long and bitter dispute over pay and working arrangements will have begun.

A six-day overtime ban by train drivers, running from 6 to 11 May, will cause many hundreds of further cancellations.

These are the key questions and answers.

The most disruptive rail projects?

Once again, the most serious effects of engineering work will be felt by passengers hoping to use the West Coast Main Line, which connects London Euston with the West Midlands, northwest England, North Wales and southern Scotland.

The main London-Birmingham line will be severed between Rugby and Birmingham International due to track renewal work – disrupting Avanti West Coast, West Midlands Railway and London North Western Railway services. The work will also affect the CrossCountry line from Leamington Spa to Coventry, but an alternative route via Solihull is available.

Many other projects on the line mean a much-reduced service on the intercity operator Avanti West Coast, with most journeys taking significantly longer due to diversionary routes.

The line between Euston and Milton Keynes Central will be closed completely on Sunday 5 May. On the same day, no trains will run between Glasgow and anywhere in England “owing to improvement work on the West Coast Main Line at Crewe, Wigan and other locations”.

Where else?

Work on a new station, Cambridge South, requires bus replacement services between Royston and Cambridge on Great Northern. In addition, the Stansted airport-Cambridge link will be suspended.

On the Southeastern network in Kent and Sussex, widespread work will be carried out on a wide range of lines.

The Dover-Folkestone link is also running at reduced speed.

What about the industrial action?

Members of the Aslef union start an overtime ban on bank holiday Monday, 6 May, for six days. The action is in furtherance of a dispute with the 14 rail firms in England that are controlled by the UK government and represented by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). As many rail firms depend on drivers working overtime, hundreds – possibly thousands – of trains will be cancelled.

Strikes by train drivers aim to halt thousands of trains on 7, 8 and 9 May 2024, with commuters who normally go to the office on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday among the targets.

The aim is to cause maximum disruption for minimum loss of pay.

Tuesday 7 May – strike on London commuter operators

Operators will run skeleton services as follows: Greater Anglia will run to and from London Liverpool Street to Stansted airport, Southend, Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich.

Southern will run a shuttle service between London Victoria and Gatwick airport.

Thameslink will run a shuttle service between London St Pancras and Luton (town and airport stations).

Great Northern will run a shuttle service between London King’s Cross and Cambridge.

South Western Railway will run between London Waterloo, Woking and Guildford, with some other suburban services likely.

Southeastern urges passengers not to travel, but is likely to run services between London St Pancras and Ashford on the high-speed line; Charing Cross and Orpington; and London Bridge and Dartford.

C2C will cancel all services.

Wednesday 8 May – strike on many intercity operators

Five train operators – Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, East Midlands Railway, West Midlands Railway and CrossCountry – are likely to cancel all train services.

GWR will run no long-distance trains, but will run some local services

Thursday 9 May – strike in northern England and East Coast Main Line

Northern and TransPennine Express will cancel all services. LNER will run a skeleton service on core lines between around 7am and 7pm. Its main Edinburgh-Newcastle-York-London line will have at least one train an hour, with some additional trains on the southern part of the network.

What are the options?

On intercity routes, switching from the West Coast to East Coast main line on 8 May could work, with the reverse on 9 May.

As always, National Express, Megabus and Flixbus will run networks of long-distance coach services. National Express is adding nearly 8,000 seats, with extra links to and from London serving:

  • Brighton
  • Bristol
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester
  • Stansted

How bad will the roads be?

The RAC predicts bank-holiday leisure traffic well above pre-Covid levels. Working with the transport data firm, Inrix, the motoring organisation says heavy traffic could build up as early as Thursday morning, 2 May, in some parts of the UK, with the M53 southbound from Liverpool to Chester hit by mid-morning delays of up to 45 minutes.

Friday 3 May will be the worst day for hold-ups, with journeys on major routes expected to take 13 per cent longer than usual. The busiest route will be the M5 southbound between Bristol and Taunton on Friday afternoon where travel is expected to take nearly two hours longer than usual due to getaway and commuter traffic combining.

Saturday 4 May is expected to see the most leisure journeys.

On bank holiday Monday itself, parts of the northwest, East Anglia and southwest will be hardest hit by returning traffic. Jams are predicted on the M55 eastbound between Blackpool and Preston from 11am, Cornwall to Exeter eastbound on the A30 and A38 from 11.30am and Norwich to Thetford on the A11 southbound from 12.15pm.

Throughout the weekend, the best time to travel will be before 9am and after 5pm.

The key times to avoid are:

  • Thursday 1-7pm
  • Friday 11am-6pm
  • Saturday 9am-2pm
  • Sunday 10am-3pm
  • Monday 10am-3pm

RAC Breakdown spokesperson Alice Simpson said: “The train strikes between Tuesday 7 and Saturday 11 May will inevitably lead to roads being busier.

“Industrial action can throw best-laid travel plans into chaos and many commuters who normally rely on the trains instead take to the roads, so our advice is to avoid driving at peak times of day if you can.”

And there’s more trouble to come later in the month?

Yes. More train drivers’ strikes are probably unlikely until June, but the late May bank holiday (25-27 May) will see widespread disruption – once again on the West Coast Main Line, specifically on the Crewe-Carlisle and Carstairs-Lanark stretches, as well as on the Greater Anglia network.

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