Rail services face cuts as staff self-isolate

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Masked passengers waiting for trainsImage source, Getty Images

Train companies have said they may have to reduce timetables to cope with shortages of staff forced to isolate by the NHS Covid app.

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, said that as Covid cases were increasing, more staff were being "pinged" by the app.

It said that while companies were working to "minimise any disruption, there may be an impact on services".

The Department for Transport (DfT) said it had agreed to reduced timetables.

"We recognise the challenges operators are facing due to staff shortages and have agreed that they can consider a reduced or revised timetable in the event of serious shortages," a DfT spokesperson said.

"These timetables must prioritise safe and reliable services and we urge passengers to check before they travel."

The number of people in England and Wales being "pinged" by the NHS app rose by 17% to 618,903 alerts in the week to 15 July.

Cancellations growing

Some rail companies have already announced cancellations because of pinging. Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs Thameslink and Southern trains, has announced it will introduce a reduced timetable from Monday 26 July.

GTR said: "Unfortunately, like other industries across the country, coronavirus continues to affect our operations. We have fewer colleagues available at the moment due to a significant increase recently in the number of our people affected by Covid-19.

"Our colleagues have continued to work tirelessly throughout the pandemic and we're really sorry for any inconvenience caused by the latest changes."

Other companies have announced similar moves:

  • West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern Railway cancelled 600 trains last week as the number of staff self isolating surged
  • London Northwestern services will change from Saturday. Buses will replace trains on some Saturday services and four services between Northampton and Euston will be removed on weekdays
  • GWR will introduce a reduced timetable from Monday. Nearly 5% of total services will be cancelled, while other shorter notice cancellations may also happen, depending on staff availability
  • Avanti, Thameslink and Southern will also reduce their services from Monday

West Midlands Trains, which operates West Midlands Railway and London Northwestern, also said it has a driver shortage after being unable to train new workers due to Covid restrictions and social distancing rules.

The company had recruited over 100 drivers as they anticipated many existing drivers were due to retire but it has now lost 25,000 training days and said it will take a year to catch up.

Meanwhile, a senior rail source has told the BBC that the government's plan to require rail companies to apply for exemptions for "pinged" workers is completely unmanageable and will lead to cancellations.

"It will take longer to deal with cases than the isolation," the source said. "This is very much a current problem and an ongoing risk.

"The crux of the government's thinking appears to be how essential certain roles are. But trains get essential workers to work. This does not mean transport is sorted and is not a comfort to those doing the timetable or arranging train drivers' schedules."

The source added that the vast majority of train drivers were already double-vaccinated and that the government had "set the bar very high" for exemptions.