Switching rail line closure work from weekends to midweek being considered by Network Rail

Closing rail lines for engineering work on weekdays rather than over weekends and holidays is being considered by Network Rail to take account of radically altered post-pandemic travel patterns.

The track body has appointed consultants to look at the potential switch, with industry insiders telling The Scotsman they expect a trial to follow.

It comes after work to pave the way for electrification that would have closed the line between Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge for eight days between Christmas and New Year was postponed by transport minister Jenny Gilruth because of the impact on passengers.

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Since passengers returned to the railways after Covid travel restrictions were lifted, Saturday has become ScotRail’s busiest day, while weekday commuting remains down by 40 per cent – more than elsewhere in the UK.

Work over the festive period to prepare for electrification of the Edinburgh-Forth Bridge line has been postponed because of its impact on passengers. Picture: Network Rail

Any change to when rail line closures, known as possessions, are scheduled is also likely to have a disproportionate impact in Scotland as there is more upgrading work planned, such as electrification, than south of the Border.

Passenger watchdog Transport Focus welcomed the Network Rail study as it said opinion was split about the least disruptive time for such work. Scotland-based senior stakeholder manager Robert Samson said: “An examination of the merits of mid-week possessions as an alternative to the traditional weekends/holidays because of changed travel patterns, which could lead to a trial, is worthwhile.

"Despite acknowledging changing travel patterns, our own insight indicates there is no consensus about the timings of planned disruption. In line with previous research, when works are imminent, passengers want transparency and good communication. In particular, they want to have advance notice of works, so that they can plan their journeys.”

ScotRail declined to say whether it had a view on the best time for disruptive work to be carried out, saying only it “would leave this for Network Rail”.

Transport minister Jenny Gilruth announced preliminary work towards electrification of the Edinburgh-Fife line in June. Picture: Network Rail

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), which represents suppliers, said the timing of line closures was a major issue, but declined to comment on the short-notice decision to put off the Edinburgh-Forth Bridge work, which is believed to have angered some in the industry.

The closures were understood to have been planned for more than a year and agreed in July, with the postponement not ordered until after some train operators’ timetables for the period had been published.

David Clarke, RIA’s Scotland lead, said: “Our members would welcome a consideration of possession patterns, and this was raised as a key topic at our conference in Edinburgh last week. It is important to review the trade-offs between closing railways to passengers and freight to allow work to go ahead versus the delivery efficiencies that longer closures provide, meaning that more work can be delivered for less.

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"Also, for the railway supply chain, carrying out most of the work over the weekend can add to the cost and makes the work less attractive to prospective employees. So we hope the conclusions of the study will address these issues, given both the challenges for public funding and uncertain travel patterns, which mean that weekends can be busier than midweek on the railway.”

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