Thousands of members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) employed by Network Rail will walkout from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on December 27 in a bitter dispute over jobs, pay and conditions.
When the industrial action was announced, the RMT claimed it would “only affect engineering work and not train services”.
But passengers are being urged to only travel on Christmas Eve “if absolutely necessary”, and to consider making Christmas getaway journeys on an earlier day if possible.
Network Rail warned the final trains on some routes on Saturday will depart in the morning, and some routes such as London-Sheffield and London-Nottingham will have no services at all.
Chief executive Andrew Haines said: “RMT suggestions that their planned strike action over the festive period is ‘not targeting Christmas’ would be laughable were the consequences not so painful to so many people, including on Christmas Eve. The RMT is causing needless misery to its own members, to the railway and to the country’s economy.
“I am so sorry that our passengers are having to bear the brunt of the RMT’s needless strike when a fair offer is on the table and when only a third of the workforce have rejected it.
“Our offer guarantees jobs and gives everyone a decent pay rise of 9 per cent and more.
“Two of our three trade unions have already accepted, and the RMT needs to think again.”
The RMT described Network Rail’s offer as “substandard”.
Network Rail said the strike means all trains will need to be taken out of service by 6pm on Christmas Eve. In most locations, that means passenger journeys must be completed by 3pm.
Examples of last train times include 10:45am from Leeds to London, 11am from London to Edinburgh and 12.48pm from London to Manchester.
The combination of an overtime ban at 14 train companies means some operators will have no services on Christmas Eve. The day’s timetables will be published on Tuesday.
The limited number of services due to run on Boxing Day will also be affected.
One operator, Merseyrail, planned to have a half-hourly service on Boxing Day, but will now not run any trains.
A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents operators, said: “The RMT’s willingness to disrupt people’s travel plans for the first Christmas in three years without Covid restrictions is deeply disappointing.
“We worked hard to avoid this damaging widespread campaign of industrial action affecting travel during the festive period and we apologise to our customers.
“The RMT overtime ban in place up to January 2 will also affect services, and we urge customers to check with the websites and social media of National Rail Enquiries and their train operator.
“We are now focusing on giving passengers the maximum possible certainty so they can make alternative plans if necessary.”
Christmas is a key period for Network Rail to carry out maintenance work. The company planned a £120 million programme of more than 300 projects this Christmas.