Exclusive: two years of rail chaos results in 650,000 replacement bus journeys

Rail cancellations over the past two years have led to 650,000 replacement bus journeys across the UK, contributing to the air pollution problem in our towns, cities and countryside, figures obtained by Air Quality News can reveal.

The publicly-owned Network Rail, who owns and manages all rail infrastructure in England, Wales and Scotland, says train companies must offer rail replacement buses when tracks are closed for repair and maintenance work. However, the scale of disruption suggests that the UK’s creaking rail infrastructure is under serious pressure, and the patchwork nature of the repairs is resulting in a significant number of buses on the roads and misery for commuters.

The data, which was released to Air Quality News under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), reveals that between May 2019 to December 2019 alone there were over 142,000 replacement bus services put on and in the recent two-week Christmas period there were over 20,000.

The true figure could be even higher, as Network Rail only collects data on replacement bus services that are run due to planned cancellations, and not last-minute changes.

To run a replacement bus service, train companies must notify Network Rail up to two days before a train is due to run.

One cancelled train journey could be covered by multiple buses. For example, if a busy TransPennine Express train from Manchester to Leeds is cancelled, more than one bus could be put on to ensure that commuters can reach their destination.

The Rail Delivery Group, who speaks on behalf of all the UK’s individual operators, told Air Quality News that all buses and coaches must meet EU emissions standards and is better for the environment than offering taxis or travelling by car.

However, Air Quality News has learnt that replacement bus services have been run with as little as two passengers on them.

The data also includes replacement buses that are required due to industrial action on the railway, with several operators currently in long-running disputes with its staff.

In December 2019, staff at the struggling South Western Railway (SWR) went on strike for 27 days, the longest stretch of action against a major rail operator in history.

Replacement buses have a big cost to the public purse. Network Rail pays out tens of millions of pounds in compensation to individual train operators who hire the vehicles from local coach companies and claim the money back.

Total compensation payments to train operators for cancellations in 2018/19 topped £500m, which has greatly increased from 2011/12 when £112m was paid out. These figures cover replacement buses as well as revenue loss from reduced ticket sales and customer refunds.

Network Rail has faced fierce criticism for cancellations on the network in recent months. Rail regulator the Office for Road and Rail recently put them ‘on warning’ for poor performance, particularly in the north and the Midlands.

A Network Rail spokesperson said: ‘The railway is the greenest form of mass transit in the UK. To make sure we can provide a safe and reliable service for the millions of people who use our network every day, we regularly carry out maintenance and upgrade work.

‘The vast majority of the time we carry out this work when trains aren’t scheduled to run, but sometimes this isn’t possible. In these instances, train companies arrange rail replacement services to ensure that passengers can still get where they need to go.’

Susie Homan, director of planning, engineering and operations at the Rail Delivery Group, said: ‘Rail is a vital low carbon way to travel and train companies are adding thousands more services and replacing half the nation’s train fleet new for old so that more people can make cleaner, greener journeys.

‘As we maintain and upgrade the railway, we run rail replacement services to ensure passengers can continue their journeys by bus and coach, rather than encourage people to use a car.’

The full figures released to Air Quality News by Network Rail are below.

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Photo Credit – Shutterstock


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