Rail passengers were facing delays as they rushed to get the last trains before Christmas Eve services came to a halt, while Britain’s roads were braced for extra traffic as a result of the strikes on the railways.
People embarking on festive getaways or heading home for the holidays gathered on the concourses of major stations including London Euston and Birmingham New Street.
Thousands of members of the RMT union at Network Rail will strike from 6pm on Christmas Eve until 6am on 27 December.
The last intercity trains on some long-distance routes departed as early as 8am. Some main routes were not due to operate at all, partly due to ongoing industrial action that includes an overtime ban at train operating companies.
Services from Euston to Crewe, Manchester Piccadilly, Glasgow Central and Birmingham International were all delayed, with a limited staff presence as travellers waited anxiously with their luggage.
Some told of their frustration at short-notice cancellations but others voiced support for workers on strike.
Kartik Aggarwal, a 24-year-old student, faced missing a Christmas party in Birmingham. Speaking at Euston alongside some relatives, he told PA Media: “It’s been really bad. We were planning for a long time only to have two trains get cancelled with no notification. We came running but still nothing. I feel very irritated, like we’re wasting our time.”
The PhD student Amy Saunders, 31, said the disruption to her journey to see family for Christmas was stressful, but she expressed her sympathy with those on strike.
She said: “I support the strikes and I’m sure it’s equally stressful for everyone working here trying to get everyone home for Christmas, and they wouldn’t need to strike if their working conditions weren’t intolerable.
“Everyone’s really struggling and there needs to be more support.”
The RMT had argued it was not targeting Christmas travel when it called the latest strike in the long-running dispute over pay and jobs.
Network Rail, however, said the timing of the action meant all passenger trains would need to be in depots before the action started.
Contingency staff are being drafted in to allow Network Rail to press ahead with most of the £120m of engineering works planned over the Christmas bank holidays. No passenger trains were ever scheduled to run on Christmas Day. The few planned Boxing Day services on Eurostar, Merseyrail and Stansted Express have now been cancelled.
With large stations quiet during much of Friday, rail sources suggested that many passengers had decided to travel earlier – while surveys for motoring organisations indicated a third had opted to drive this year rather than take the train they would normally choose.
The last Christmas Eve trains from Edinburgh to London had been scheduled to leave at 8am. Last trains for Newcastle and Scotland were at 11am, and either way between Manchester and Liverpool at about 2pm.
No direct trains were running between London and Nottingham or Sheffield on East Midlands Railway, which had urged passengers not to travel on its services on Saturday.
Further disruption will continue after Christmas, with services starting later on 27 December due to the strike, and continuing problems on South Western, Chiltern, East Midlands and elsewhere due to the RMT overtime ban.
The TSSA union will strike for 24 hours on separate days at Cross Country, GWR and West Midland trains. Ongoing engineering work will also impact services, including on the West Coast line from London Euston, and into London Liverpool Street.
There has been no sign of a resolution to the dispute. The RMT has accused ministers of “going missing” since meeting union and industry leaders nine days ago. The general secretary, Mick Lynch, said: “Until the government gives the rail industry a mandate to come to a negotiated settlement on job security, pay and conditions of work, our industrial campaign will continue.”
A Department for Transport spokesperson said ministers had “worked hard to facilitate a fair and reasonable offer”, adding that the public “deserve better than to have their festive celebrations impacted by strikes”.
PA Media contributed to this report