The level of passenger rail services on the British network will be reduced to an average of 72% of pre-Covid levels. Before the introduction of the new lockdown, services had been operating at around 87% while demand remains suppressed. Operators served 134 million passengers in the second quarter, which ended on December 31, equivalent to 29.8% of the journeys recorded in the same quarter the previous year. 

The timetable will maintain peak time services and those used by key workers, building on experience gained during the previous lockdowns, which began in March and November 2020.

The changes are intended to be easily reversible as soon as possible, with different operators reducing timetables at different times. Operators will also continue to monitor and adapt services to ensure they meet demand. 

Since the introduction of Emergency Recovery Management Agreements (ERMA) in September, which effectively nationalised operation of passenger services, losses incurred by franchise operators have been covered by the public purse. The cut in services is intended to reduce costs during the lockdown, during which passenger numbers are expected to remain limited. 

“Changing to a reduced timetable during this period of much lower demand will deliver certainty for those people who need to travel while saving taxpayers' money,” says Mr Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents operators. “We ask people to check before they travel in the weeks ahead and we thank our frontline rail staff whose hard work is keeping other key workers moving.”  

The reduced timetable will also enable operators which are currently suffering staff shortages due to the pandemic to offer greater reliability for services still in operation.  

For services which have been cancelled under the new timetable, tickets may be changed or refunded: 

  • advance tickets purchased before the government’s announcement on January 4 can be changed for another date or for a voucher, but cannot be refunded 
  • anytime tickets and off-peak tickets, including super off-peak, can be changed for another date or refunded, and
  • season ticket refunds, dependent on the value left on ticket.  

British rail operators have paid out a total of over £500m in ticket refunds since the start of the pandemic. 

“It is critical that our railways continue to deliver reliable services for key workers and people who cannot reasonably work from home, and that they respond quickly to changes in demand,” says rail minister, Mr Chris Heaton-Harris. “Levels of services will vary by operator and changes will come into effect steadily over the next few weeks. Passengers who are using the railways, including those who need to travel to vaccination centres, should check their route before they travel, and aim to do so outside of peak times wherever possible.” 

The news follows the suspension of all services by open-access operators Grand Central and Hull Trains on January 6 in response to the implementation of national Covid-19 restrictions. GWR also confirmed that it would operate 80% of normal services from January 11.