Secret Whitehall plot blamed for rail chaos

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Commuters are facing chaos on the railways this month because of a secret Whitehall plan to cut more than one in four train services, insiders have revealed.

Tens of thousands of travellers were stung by cancellations on Tuesday that have been publicly blamed on Covid-related staff shortages, with services into London and around the country severely reduced.

However, rail bosses privately accused the Government of exacerbating the chaos through their handling of a secret plan, agreed before the Christmas break, to scale back services in response to the omicron surge.

The Telegraph has learnt that an emergency timetable was signed off by Peter Wilkinson, head of passenger services at the Department for Transport (DfT), before Christmas.

In what was supposed to be a coordinated effort, operators agreed to reduce services to approximately 70pc of pre-pandemic levels by Jan 16.

But in subsequent weeks, senior industry sources say that they have since been met with radio silence from Whitehall amid a backlash against omicron curbs on the Tory backbenches.

Rail bosses complain that there had been no coordination by the DfT while the situation has deteriorated. Operators have started to unilaterally cut services and introduce emergency timetables as a result, it is claimed.

An industry source said: “They [the Government] are owning the problem, not the solution. If you do it [cut services] in a haphazard way, it gives the network a bad name.”

Victoria has been hit hardest after Southern rail cancelled all its trains in and out of  London’s second-busiest railway station until Jan 10. This disruption alone is estimated to have hit tens of thousands of passengers. 

A spokesman for Southern said that the cancellation would not drag on beyond Monday next week.

The Rail Delivery Group, the trade body for operators, said that 6,000 staff, or one in 10 rail workers, are off work.

ScotRail was among those to announce reduced timetables or warn of cancellations.The operator said 160 of its 2,000 daily services would be culled from Tuesday.

Alex Hynes, chief executive, told the BBC: “Over the last few weeks because of record numbers of Covid cases we have been cancelling too many trains so we have decided to proactively put this revised timetable in to give our customers greater certainty on the service we can offer.

“There will be a few twists and turns in this Covid tale until it’s over.”

Another operator, CrossCountry, said its staff absences are “worsening each day”.

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