12 December 2000

Thousands let the plane take the strain to escape railway chaos

By Barrie Clement, Transport Editor

Thousands of travellers switched from the train to the plane last month to try to escape the rail chaos.

BAA, which operates seven airports, said yesterday that the disruption to rail services after the Hatfield crash added about 200,000 passengers to its British mainland routes. Domestic passenger numbers in November rose to 1.9 million, an increase of 5.6 per cent on the same month last year.

BAA operates Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow airports. Its fastest-growing airports during the month were Stansted, in Essex, and Southampton. The three Scottish airports recorded double-digit traffic increases.

Passengers wanting to travel between England and Scotland on the east coast main line over the Christmas and New Year period will have to book seats in advance. Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), which operates the line, said travellers using all services between 21 December and 3 January would have to make reservations.

GNER said prior booking was necessary to avoid overcrowding, because it was operating only 40 per cent of normal services over the holiday period.

The Rail Passengers Council said the move violated the fundamental principle of the railway, that passengers could turn up at a station and buy a ticket for a train that day. The council described the policy as "madness". The operator normally carries about 60,000 people a day, but it is currently able to carry only 24,000.

GNER also said a fault yesterday with the national railway telephone booking system had posed problems for passengers trying to book tickets. There were reports that hundreds of people could not get through to the call centre in Newcastle upon Tyne. A spokesman said the company did not know whether the weight of calls prompted by GNER's announcement that all tickets had to be reserved had caused the problem.