Train services are to be pared back across Britain from Monday as passengers are urged to stop all non-essential travel to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Ministers and rail operators across England, Scotland and Wales have agreed to make progressive cuts to timetables, with the aim of keeping core services running – but reflecting a drop of almost 70% in passenger numbers since the outbreak started.
The government and industry decision will also enable rail freight services to run effectively.
The speed with which services will be cut will be left to individual train operators, but they have pledged to maintain a sufficient timetable for key workers to travel to work and for the public to access medical appointments, as well as ensuring the flow of goods by rail.
While franchised train operators have minimum service obligations and could have faced contractual penalties without government dispensation, so-called “open access” operators such as Hull Trains have already cut back services to just one per day, while Eurostar is running just three returns daily on its main route from London to Paris.
In the capital, a reduced London Underground service has already come into effect with the closure of 40 stations, and the axing of the night tube.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “We are taking decisive action to protect the public, which means reducing travel for the time being, whilst still ensuring key worker heroes can get to their jobs to keep this nation running.
“For passengers in crucial roles, including essential workers in our emergency services and NHS, alongside people who need to attend medical appointments or care for loved ones, these changes protect the services they rely on.”
Shapps suggested earlier this week that some more rail networks could be temporarily nationalised, but the government would be “flexible” over contracts. Several franchises were in financial difficulty due to fewer passengers than anticipated, even before the current crisis.
He added: “Our railways are at the heart of this country’s transport links, and we continue to work closely with the industry to develop measures that protect operators in these challenging times.”
Robert Nisbet, of the Rail Delivery Group, said the move would allow train operators to run services over a longer period with fewer workers during the pandemic.
He said: “At a time of extraordinary national challenge, the measures rail companies are putting in place with government will preserve services so that we can continue to get key workers to where they need to be, deliver food to supermarkets and get fuel to power stations.”