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Midweek rail engineering work on East Coast main line sends air fares soaring above £650

After 20 months of rail strikes and weeks of weather-related disruption, passengers on the East Coast main line face another challenge: midweek engineering work.

A digital signalling project at the southern end of the line linking the capital with Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland is keeping London King’s Cross out of long-distance action until Wednesday.

Some journey times are being doubled. For example, an afternoon departure from York to London on Monday requires changes at Peterborough, Cambridge and Tottenham Hale on the London Underground, taking almost four hours.

LNER rail replacement buses are in operation between Peterborough and Bedford, where travellers can connect with East Midlands Railway services to and from London St Pancras. The one-way fare for the 40-mile bus trip alone is £45.

Other journeys require multiple changes. A Monday afternoon trip from London to Newcastle requires a change at Potter’s Bar in Hertfordshire for a rail replacement bus to Hitchin, and further changes at St Neots, Huntingdon and Peterborough. The fare for the seven-hour journey is £193; cheaper and less-complicated options are available for later departures.

It appears that many travellers are switching to air. British Airways is selling seats for its 70-minute flight from Newcastle to London Heathrow for £656 one way on Monday and Tuesday evening.

In the opposite direction – Heathrow to Newcastle – the last aircraft seat on Monday is selling at £651 one way on BA’s website. Fares on the five departures on Tuesday start at £328 one way.

Network Rail says scheduling the engineering work from Saturday to Tuesday “has a lower impact than Thursday to Sunday or Friday to Monday”.

A spokesperson for the infrastructure provider said: “The large-scale nature and importance of this work has meant we have needed to carry it out over a continuous four-day period.

“We know this involves a significant amount of disruption to customers and our industry partnership planned it carefully using passenger journey data to ensure it chose the time with least impact.

“The timing was chosen as it is February half term in the locations where the work is taking place, traditionally a quieter time for travel.”

LNER says its busiest days are Thursday, Friday and Saturday; Sunday to Wednesday are quieter.

Network Rail predicts that once digital signalling is in place, there will be less lineside equipment to maintain, and consequently less engineering-related disruption in future.

The project is also impacting commuters in the London area. Jenny Saunders, customer services director at Govia Thameslink Railway, said: “We are very sorry for the disruption this will cause our Great Northern and Thameslink customers.

“We are encouraging customers to travel later in the week if they can.

“In particular, we’d urge people to work from home on Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 February if possible, to keep replacement bus services free for key workers.”

Network Rail is closing other rail routes on weekdays – notably the main line between Leeds and Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, which is closed at Brighouse from Monday 19 to Friday 23 February. Train diversions are enabling trans-Pennine services to continue, with longer journey times.

Next month, the line through Dorset from Dorchester to Weymouth will be closed from Monday 18 to Wednesday 20 March.

Network Rail’s Chris Denham said: “Network Rail’s regions work closely with operators and communities to find the right time for engineering work, taking into account factors such as major events and making sure we don’t do work on diversionary routes at the same time.

“That can mean different things in different parts of the country, particularly in areas which may have more weekend traffic than weekdays or where half term falls on different dates. We can also do work in week-long blocks, which reduces the impact of our work on passengers for the rest of the year.

“There’s still no ‘right time’ to do the work, but by doing it, we can keep the railway running reliably the rest of the year.”

Industrial action at LNER by train drivers belonging to the Aslef union resumes on Thursday 29 February, in the shape of an overtime ban. A strike will take place on Friday 1 March.

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