With millions of people now subject to the most severe “Tier 3” restrictions in England, and a ban on non-essential travel in and out of Wales, the government has announced the nationwide abolition of charges to change Advance rail tickets.
These discounted tickets are not refundable, and usually carry a £10 administration fee for changes before departure.
Under Tier 3 guidance, affecting large parts of northwest England as well as South Yorkshire, people are advised not to travel in and out of very high risk areas, other than for work, education, accessing youth services or to meet caring responsibilities.
The “coronavirus firebreak” ordered by the Welsh government, bans non-essential travel. Scotland is also imposing tougher measures on some areas.
While refunds were offered at the start of lockdown in March, because government restrictions prohibited non-essential travel by rail, that option is no longer available – even if the journey is not feasible due to the latest rules.
Some train operators are levying the £10 fee, while others are allowing free rebooking on the same route. But many people have brought Advance tickets for one-off trips that they do not wish to postpone.
The Department for Transport (DfT) now says passengers who bought Advance tickets prior to any announcement of travel restrictions can exchange the ticket for rail vouchers to the same value, valid for a year.
The vouchers can be used for any journey.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “Covid has seen massive disruption to our way of life, and passengers buying Advance tickets should not be penalised for cancelling their travel plans to follow advice that can save lives.
“By temporarily scrapping these admin fees on Advance tickets, and extending the time people have to re-book their journeys, we are ensuring that large numbers of rail passengers will not be left out of pocket.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Passengers will welcome this decision. It takes the risk out of booking ahead in the fast-changing coronavirus situation. Passengers can plan ahead for Christmas knowing that they won’t lose their money if they aren’t allowed to go."
Rail journeys through Tier 3 areas, such as London-Leeds, which passes through South Yorkshire, are still acceptable.
The announcement comes at a time of increasing concern among Treasury officials about the £25m per day that the DfT is paying to keep largely empty trains running.
Even though Greater Manchester is under Tier 3 rules, Avanti West Coast has run a normal service of 150 express trains between Manchester and London over the weekend.
The latest DfT figures show rail usage is less than one-third of last year’s passenger numbers, and had been declining since early August.