Call to reverse 'madness' of rail service cuts


Train services across England have been drastically cut back, with operators pleading necessity due to staff illnesses from the Omicron variant.

The Rail Delivery Group reported that rail staff absences are at 11%, adding that the reduced timetables were at least ensuring more reliable services, with cancellations at 2.1% across all operators - below the average of 3%.

However, a new timetable published by South Western Railway (SWR) on Monday (17 January) marked ‘a new low point’ in the company’s services from Waterloo to Weymouth and Exeter, campaigners said.

Rail Future said that with no through services to London from stations west of Bournemouth and just one through train in one direction only on the Exeter route, passengers will be forced to change at Bournemouth or Salisbury, ‘resulting in a loss of convenience and longer journey times’.

Stewart Palmer, a Railfuture director, said: ‘There is no evidence from recent weeks that the levels of sickness by staff from Covid has forced these changes on SWR on these two routes.'

He added: ‘SWR have already reduced the attractiveness of these services by reducing frequencies, extending average journey times and the withdrawal of on-train refreshments.

‘They seem to display a cavalier disregard for the needs of rail users. These changes will just drive passengers away to higher carbon means of transport. Rail users and their elected politicians, both local and national, need to make their voices heard to reverse this madness.’

SWR managing director Claire Mann said: ‘The spread of the Omicron variant has had a significant impact on our railway, with fewer people using the train and staff shortages impacting on our ability to consistently deliver the current timetable.

‘Having assessed demand and spoken to our industry colleagues, we believe this new, temporary timetable is the most effective means of ensuring our customers receive a reliable service, with short-notice cancellations minimised.

‘Journey planners will be updated on a week-by-week basis, with updates taking place towards the end of each week. Customers should check their journey as close to their time of travel as possible.’

On Monday C2C also introduced a new timetable ‘because of the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic’, which it said would allow it to ‘provide a more reliable service, given our increased staff sickness rates’.

The firm added: ‘It will also enable us to save taxpayer money, as passenger demand has fallen significantly in recent weeks.’

Avanti West Coast said it will be operating a reduced timetable on weekdays until 25 February ‘to manage staff shortages and ensure a reliable service’.

More rregional services have also seen an impact. Merseyrail said all of its lines were changing to a 30-minute service from 17 Jan until further notice, while East Midlands Railway cut its timetable by about 4%.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told the BBC that the current situation had exposed 'existing shortages of staff and shows just how the transport companies have been winging it ‎on the cheap for years'.

'That has to stop. With talk of work from home and other restrictions being lifted imminently this is the time to be planning for the future of the railway not smuggling in permanent restrictions.'

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