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The entire national passenger rail network was taken into government hands today in an effort to ensure key basic services are maintained.

Private operators will continue to run the trains on a day-to-day basis but with ministers in charge and able to dictate services levels. Franchise agreements are suspended for six months.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said: “We are taking this action to protect the key workers who depend on our railways to carry on their vital roles, the hard-working commuters who have radically altered their lives to combat the spread of coronavirus, and the frontline rail staff who are keeping the country moving.

“People deserve certainty that the services they need will run or that their job is not at risk in these unprecedented times.

“We are also helping passengers get refunds on Advance tickets to ensure no-one is unfairly out of pocket for doing the right thing.

“These offers will give operators the confidence and certainty so they can play their part in the national interest.” 

Operators across the UK today began to reduce services by up to 50 per cent due to falling demand and staff reporting ill or self-isolating. Reductions will continue all week and thereafter.

It came as Tube chiefs today made a fresh appeal to people not to travel unless their journey is “absolutely essential”. They warned that making non-essential journeys “risks lives” of others.

A second Tube line — the Circle — was today suspended from service until further notice. Tube chiefs say all Circle line stations are served by other lines and the move gives them more flexibility to maintain other routes. The Waterloo & City line was suspended last week.

Tube passenger numbers are already down by 70 per cent — but the remaining 30 per cent means about 1,350 journeys a day are still being made.

Union leaders today said services on some lines were “packed”, “making social distancing impossible”.

A woman at Green Park station on the London Underground Tube network (PA)

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has suggested that NHS staff could be given free parking at hospitals, which may reduce public transport passenger numbers.

There is a fear at senior levels at London Underground that unless passenger numbers come down, the Government could order a major crackdown with some lines closed completely.

An LU source said: “We have to get the numbers down before the Government steps in. We are here for critical workers — but it must be for those people and those people only.”

Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, said: “The rail industry is working together so that people and goods can keep making essential journeys during this unprecedented national challenge.”