For Rutland, the traditional British shutdown of the rail network began a day early. Oakham, the county town, is served by CrossCountry trains. But the RMT union, which is in dispute with the train operator over the role of guards, chose to strike on Christmas Eve – along with New Year’s Eve – eliminating Rutland from the national rail network.
While the East Midlands county’s commuters waited for a replacement bus service, hundreds of other trains were being axed across the nation. The sudden sweep of Omicron triggered cancellations as hundreds of train crew were rendered unavailable for duty.
Even at Britain’s best-connected railway station, London St Pancras, Christmas Eve proved unhappy for thousands of passengers. The dozens of trains that normally pass through the station between Cambridge and Brighton were all cancelled – along with a scattering of other services, as Thameslink managers battled to staff the remaining departures.
Christmas Eve is always a high-pressure travel day in the UK, with millions of people setting out by road and rail to reach their loved ones – all the more so in 2021.
Last Christmas, the vast majority of journeys were outlawed as Covid-19 made its midwinter attack on an almost entirely unvaccinated population.
This year, despite record numbers of infections from the Omicron variant of coronavirus, many were clearly intent on making up for lost encounters.
For the first time since 2010, Christmas Eve fell on a Friday, adding extra pressure on the system from those who had to do a full working week before starting their journeys.
The RAC had warned that it would be “Frantic Festive Friday” – marking the busiest Christmas for five years on the roads, with 5.3 million leisure journeys planned.
The worst problems were predicted for a 10-mile stretch of the A303 through Wiltshire between Amesbury and the A36 junction, but in the event a scattering of breakdowns caused the worst snarl-ups, on the M4 and M6.
Rail services across the United Kingdom wound down from early evening. None will run on 25 December, but on Boxing Day – but Edinburgh-Glasgow trains will run for the first time “in decades”, according to Scotrail.
The UK’s airports enjoyed a surprisingly trouble-free 24 December. While some staff were laid low by Omicron, the mass cancellation of flights to France and Germany – triggered by travel bans on British visitors – relieved the strain on security checkpoints and runway slots.
Airports will be active on Christmas Day, with a mix of long-haul departures from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester plus many eastern European links from Luton and Stansted. The only domestic flights are on British Airways, connecting London Heathrow with Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Transatlantic passengers with connecting flights face problems, due to the spread of Omicron among US airline flight crew. United cancelled at least 170 Christmas Eve flights, and Delta 140 departures.