On Christmas Day, the land falls silent as the trains, tubes and buses largely shut-down for a well-earned break. However, when the railways were younger, the motor car didn’t exist, and the Christmas holidays lasted just one day, trains were commonplace on Christmas Day itself.

The notion of the country shutting down, is an oddly modern phenomena, and in our modern frantic lives, a very welcome one.

For example, December 1862:

South Eastern Railway ran a Sunday service, as did the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, with the addition of a fast service at 7am from London to Brighton.

The Great Northern Railway not only ran a Sunday service, but return tickets sold from the 20th Dec could be used on any day for the return trip up to the 27th Dec.

The London and North-Western ran a Sunday service, with extra trains in the morning from Euston. Likewise, the South-Western Railway had additional trains departing from Waterloo in the morning.

By 1901, the newspapers were reporting that railway companies would keep ticket halls open late on Christmas Eve so people could buy advance tickets, which may suggest that the rot had started, as trains were running Sunday services, but maybe the ticket offices were closed.

Exactly 80 years ago, travel on Christmas Day was such a staple of the railway services that they sold special gift tickets that could be given to relatives who might want to visit you.

London Underground was no exception, and an example can be found in 1941, when it was announced that there would be early workmen’s trains on Christmas Day, with a normal Sunday service for the rest of the day. London’s buses were also out, although services would run down at around 4pm. Trams and trolley cars would work throughout the night, as normal.

When did it all change?

Curbs to Christmas Day services started in the mid 1950s, but in 1961, in an effort to cut losses at British Rail, wide scale cancellations of services on Christmas Day were planned. Mostly on local services as the stations would be shut. Some long distance services between larger towns were retained, but running less often as usual.

A British Rail spokesman told The Times that it would be no real hardship as extra services would run on the 24th and 26th instead.

The other people to lose out though were also the railway staff who had pocketed a handsome bonus for Christmas Day working. But not any more.

Over the next few years, Christmas Day services dwindled, and by 1965, the now regular routine of the railway shut-down on Christmas Day was nearly complete.

In fact, in 1965, not only were there hardly any trains on Christmas Day, but the now traditional reduced service was also in effect on Boxing Day.

However, the London Underground was bucking the trend, and still running tube trains and buses on Christmas Day — although understandably, with a less intensive service than usual.

Scotland was also a slight exception, holding on to Christmas Day trains for about a decade longer.

By 1979, the only trains running on Christmas Day was a local service in Glasgow. The rest of the country was shut for the day.

And that was the last time that trains ran on Christmas Day — in 1981, trains also closed on Boxing Day as well, although that was a short lived aberration, and we usually have a Sunday style service on the day people rush to go bargain hunting in the shops.

But of course, the passengers loss is the engineers gain, as passenger trains wont run, but plenty of engineering and freight trains will be running on Christmas Day, as the railways take the opportunity to undertake major engineering works that couldn’t be done on any other day.

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10 comments
  1. Duncan Martin says:

    In Scotland there were trains on Christmas day because there were none on New Year’s day. In 1975 we travelled by train from Glasgow to Edinburgh on the 25th. Now we not only have no trains on Christmas day and very few on the 26th, we also have none on the first and a limited service on the 2nd.

  2. Fiona says:

    I hate the shutdown. We live in the country but beside the rail station so don’t have a car. We’re virtually trapped for days (4 days this year with engineering shut downs). We’d love to visit people without inconvenience & commitment of hotels or sleepovers, but no chance.

  3. Abe says:

    The Underground still ran a Christmas Day service in 1979. It was in 1980 that the network closed completely for the first time.

  4. Jon B says:

    Further to the above, Glasgow seemed to be operating a pretty full service on Boxing day, compared to the rest of the country: http://www.realtimetrains.co.uk/search/basic/GLC/2015/12/26/1806

  5. Cheerful6 says:

    Let everyone have Christmas off

  6. Chris Shanks says:

    Just come back from Barcelona. On Christmas day the Metro runs from 6am Xmas day until 2am on boxing day, compared to the usual 11pm. Reason given so that people can get around easily without using their cars.

    Result multitudes are out in the streets the parks, cafes and restaurants on the 25th. Great atmosphere.

    We often go away at Christmas & find similar in other cities.

    What do our, no doubt thousands, of European Christmas visitors make of the mighty world city of London, having no public transport what so ever on the 25th December??

  7. She Puleston says:

    My partner and I both work on the railway and find it insensitive that people expect us to have to work when we too would like to be with our families for Christmas.
    We work every other day of the year so why can’t we have Christmas day and Boxing day off surely it’s not to much to ask.

  8. Kenneth says:

    You work every other day of the year? You literally work 363 days a year and have no paid holidays? What nonsense.

    What about those doing engineering works on the railway? Or, for that matter, those working in hospitals, hotels or numerous organisations that provide an essential societal service?

    As others have said, most other civilised European countries have public transport running over the Christmas period, perhaps with a slightly reduced service at most.

    Not running public transport on a public holiday is one of the most socially regressive things imaginable.

  9. Paul Belton says:

    I joined London transport in 1965 as conductor and worked on route 231 that Christmas day. I moved on to become a driver /inspector /garage inspector /garage manager and during my 55 years service I worked every Christmas day or boxing day ( some years both) up to 2016 51 years and i recall xmas day buses started at 07 30 so that the first departure from the extreme end was 08 00 and last departure was 15.30 so that all buses were in garage by 4pm

  10. Simon Williams says:

    “trains also closed on Boxing Day as well, although that was a short lived aberration, and we usually have a Sunday style service on the day people rush to go bargain hunting in the shops.”
    This applies to the Underground but not the national rail network. Boxing Day hasn’t had a rail service for decades, although recently Southern has run a limited service from Victoria to the south coast. But virtually no other National Rail train services in Britain on Boxing Day

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