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There are no trains, no underground, no trams, almost or no buses at all on 25th of December in the UK. The 10 million London goes to a halt. We live in Manchester, a single bus service from approx. 8am to 8pm goes between the City center and the Airport.

Why?

For me, someone coming from Eastern Europe, it's completely unimaginable having no public transport for a full day.

How was this before that time when car ownership was quite common (let's say before the second world war for example)?

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The United Kingdom is officially, and has been for approaching a millennium and a half at this point (if one looks at the precursor states), a Christian country. Good Friday and Christmas Day have been subject to religious proscriptions for a long time.

So long, in fact, that they pre-date the idea of bank holidays (codified merely a century and a bit ago in 1871 by the Bank Holidays Act of that year) by centuries. Indeed, as explained at https://politics.stackexchange.com/a/41206/10121 , bank holidays are defined as days that (for banking purposes) are to be treated like Good Friday and Christmas Day.

There are rules about Christmas Day peppered throughout centuries of statute law. There are a lot of laws that have provisions stating that particular things may not happen on Christmas Day, from private laws about Oxford University to laws on supplying alcohol. Indeed, such provisions have been around long enough for some laws to have been through the process of enactment and then complete repeal centuries later. The Holy Days and Fasting Days Act 1551 was finally completely repealed in 1969, for example. There has been a lot of back and forth on the subject of the dos and do nots for Christmas Day.

Part of the back and forth has been the subject of public transport (and services). The current situation can be traced back to workers' movements demanding an enforced holiday in the 19th century, when there was a lot more public transport (and other work) on Christmas Day than there is now, but owes much to the 1950s and 1960s, when public services (encompassing telecommunications, transport, and others) available on Christmas Day were cut back in order to accommodate staff demands for the day off, and in response to a feedback loop where the fact that a lot of people (in other sectors) were already having the day off led to reduced demand.

British Railways cut down on Christmas Day services in 1961, for example. That was also the first year that the GPO did no deliveries on Christmas Day in England and Wales, as it had done (at least in the morning) until then.

Bus services came under pressure in the 1960s from unions such as the T&GWU. It is not correct to say, as other answers and the question do, that it is the norm for no services to run on Christmas Day. This was actually more true for the late 1960s and 1970s, when not even "Sunday services" were run, than it was for the 1980s and 1990s, when there were the odd special services here and there. The pendulum swung back a little bit. Lothian Buses in Edinburgh has in recent decades run services on Christmas Day, moreover.

Others similar to Lothian Buses include MoreBus in Southampton (running extended versions of just its M1 and M2 routes), East Coast Buses in Lothian, and Southern Vectis on the Isle of Wight. MerseyTravel has run free hospital route buses on Christmas Day for some years, also. For those missing the buses in London, people do odd things such as privately run vintage double-deckers along the 430 bus route.

Further reading

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    The last Christmas day bus service stopped in london in the 1970s – WendyG Dec 17 '19 at 10:09
  • Can you elaborate on "private laws about Oxford University" please? – HBeel Dec 17 '19 at 20:18
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    For secondary legislation, see for example the Rules of the Chancellor's Court 1864. For primary public legislation see 16&17 Vict c. 68 for example. An answer comment on Travel is not the place for this, so the rest I leave as an exercise for the reader. – JdeBP Dec 18 '19 at 0:17
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    Excellent and comprehensive answer from a relative newcomer. Well done !! – Mawg says reinstate Monica Dec 18 '19 at 8:24
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My family had no car until I was about 12. The lack of public transit on Christmas Day was no problem.

We spent the day at home, or at the home of relatives. Each family member traveled to where they were going to spend Christmas Day no later than Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day there was no reason to go anywhere. The day was fully occupied with cooking, eating, cleaning up after meals, napping after large meals, exchanging presents, playing with new toys, etc.

The immense benefit of shutting down for the day is that transit workers, shop assistants, Winter Wonderland performers etc. get the day off.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please go there to add your comments. – Willeke Dec 17 '19 at 17:26
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For trains and underground, Christmas is an important time for major engineering works - because the trains don't run, trackwork can take place, and because trackwork can take place, there are no trains ...

Pre-WW2, many more people used to work on Christmas Day, even for half a day, both in trade and in domestic service, and so there was transport to meet those needs, but having the day off is seen as an improvement in standards of living, and of course transport workers are as entitled to this as anyone (more so, because transport is still a heavily unionised industry).

Because everyone knows there is "no" public transport, they make alternative arrangements or reorganise their lives around it, so any public transport that does run is likely to be under-used, and of course it costs double or triple time to staff to operate it.

In my locality there are no local buses on 25, 26 Dec or 1, 2 Jan. 4 days without local buses. For people who have to work and don't drive, it's a taxi.

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    Are you sure that one-day downtime when real engineering work takes place? I don't often read about major works on that day. I think it's understandable that there are professions like policing, being a doctor, working in a non-stop shop, or for public transport where you can expect you have to work on bank holidays, and in exchange, you will have other days off and other compensation possible. That area sounds quite bad for me. – Mcload Dec 16 '19 at 17:51
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    @Mcload the Christmas engineering work on the railways lasts several days, so while the network is shut down on Christmas day itself, many lines will be out of action for a few days either side. It's far from unknown for this work to overrun. It's a huge undertaking. – Chris H Dec 16 '19 at 20:19
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    I was caught in the December 2014 engineering overrun. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 16 '19 at 22:42
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    @Mcload Most “non-stop shops” also close on Christmas Day. Those that don’t are mostly small businesses owned and staffed by people who aren’t from a Christian background and don’t mind working on Christmas Day. – Mike Scott Dec 17 '19 at 6:56
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I'm not sure there really is any answer to "Why?", beyond a mixture of lack of demand (from the public) and resistance to providing this service (from the staff). It's just a convention, arising out of being a nominally Christian nation, that one spends Christmas day at home with one's family. Which gives rise to the lack of demand and the resistance to working on that day ... chicken and egg, which came first?

A related reason for the railways especially, is that the period from Christmas day through to New Year's day is one during which track engineering work can take place with relatively little disruption, and on Christmas day with absolutely no disruption because no service is normal. The workers performing this work on Christmas day and nights are presumably grouped with essential and emergency services, and I hope that they receive much better renumeration on this day than on a normal week-end. (I don't actually know this, but they are giving up a special holiday for the benefit of the rest of society for the rest of the year).

In passing, give a thought at this time to anybody who does not have a family they can spend Christmas day with. It can be very lonely on their own with nothing except the internet for company. An invitation to (say) a foreign student a long way from home to spend the day with a "typical" English family (no such thing?) , can be very rewarding for the family and the student alike.

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I am from Eastern Europe, too. It is Eastern Europe (read: post-communist countries) that are the exception in this regard. Most of the other world takes the official/religious holidays seriously.

Generally, employers are required to pay a lot more for someone to work on these days and even if they do, they won't have much customers, so the effort doesn't pay off even if you don't care about the Christmass itself.

  • In a factory in the Netherlands technical support had to have a basic crew. They drew lots who was allowed to work at Christmas, with 3 times pay, but also who had to work at New Years Eve when nobody wanted to work. – Willeke Dec 17 '19 at 17:23
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    Most of the other world takes the official/religious holidays seriously I don't think so. In Asia everything happens almost like normal in public holidays. A lot of places closed but other places are still open with some open even longer than normal days – phuclv Dec 18 '19 at 3:12
  • @Willeke hmm, I'd volunteer for that 3 times pay. I've been on standby during Christmas for years (and other holidays) in the Netherlands and never get paid more than my normal salary if called (maybe weekend rates but that's it). – jwenting Dec 18 '19 at 5:35
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Engineering works

"What can you possibly do in one day?"

You are dealing with an industry capable of replacing an 800-foot bridge between Amtraks (around 2003, can't find a link) or this Missouri River bridge swap they did in '17.

Starting over a year before, works are planned. Months before, preparatory work is done and assets are pre-staged.

Here's a hypothetical case. They want to replace worn rail and convert to a new signaling system.

2 years before

Signaling has been slowly installing new conduit pipe along the tunnel, and new equipment boxes right next to the existing boxes and signals. Holes are drilled in the old equipment boxes to allow a cable to exit them, and plugged with a hole cover.

The track department has been slowly loosening, coating with release compound, and retightening all the bolted clips which hold the rails to the ties. This involves a great deal of fighting rust-frozen bolts that haven't turned in 20 years. Any particular bolt might take 2 minutes, or might take an hour dodging several trains in the interim.

Stations have sent through public approval a facelift for the station.

1 year before

Signaling has been slowly populating those new conduits with cabling.

Track is continuing the bolt loosening, and is replacing ties which are too broken to be reliably unbolted on Rail Change Day. They have also been installing spacers and anchors where needed so the new rails can't touch the inner third rail. They didn't do anything this Christmas; that was for the power department to replace the worn third rail.

Stations have been setting rock bolts in the ceiling and walls of the station, as needed to attach new fixtures. They have been running new conduit for the new lighting, power and signaling.

3 months before

Track has squeezed through a rail train when able, and dropped off 2 miles of new rails in 1/4 mile sections. These are just laid down in between the running rails, on the spaecers previously provided if needed. Some people think they are extra third rails; they are not. They drill holes in the old rails to match a traditional bolted track joint, then make a saw cut and bolt the joint. This is now a bolted (cli-clack) joint.

Signaling is busily racking equipment in the new cabinets, and cabling them up to the new conduits. A flexible cable runs to a temporary, miniature signal head, just three little LEDs which allow signalers to diagnose that the new equipment is working properly. Leech circuits are added to the old signal system so the new can tap any old sensors that will be retained.

Stations are now cordoning off small areas of the station at a time, off-peak, and installing all the new fixtures they possibly can.

Three days before

Track issues a "slow order" on the track section, slowing trains. They remove progressively more of the clips holding the rails to the ties, slowing trains further as they do. The last few trains run at 10 MPH on only 10% of the clips.

Stations chisel off (a small section at a time) the platform edge treatment and markings, replacing it with temporary structure and markings.

The big day: Railroad shut down.

Stations start early because they know the last trains won't use the whole platform. They tear away the temporary work and immediately place the new permanent platform edge. They do this early in the day, to give the epoxy time to cure. Then, they do any in-station work that would be too disruptive to do while the station is open. It finishes the day still a shambles, but a usable one.

Signaling does the big cut-over. The cable is removed from the temporary LED signal head, and run into the old box, where it is spliced to the wires for the proper signal head. At this point, the old signal equipment box is nothing but a cable pass-through.

Track sends through a parade of machines. The first one removes the last 10% of rail clips. The second machine picks up the new left rail, lifts away the old left rail and exchanges them. The third machine does the same with the right rail.

At rail joints (every 1/4 mile), crews bolt up the long rails with traditional track joint bars, drilling and cutting as needed. Trailing machines reinstall some of the track clips, as many as possible but without falling behind the rail change crews. The track now looks exactly the same as the day before, except if you look close, the extra rails are worn out instead of new.

The days after

Track quickly moves to install more and more rail clips, lifting the slow order as it does.

Months after: Mop-up.

Signaling moves from box to box, removing leech circuits and rerouting conduit so the signal head and legacy sensors connect straight to the new boxes. Signaling then strips the equipment out of the old boxes, and wiring out of the old conduits, and removes them.

Stations finish the work in the station, and have their grand opening in March.

Track quickly sends crews to pick up loose clips, bars, bolts and other track material left behind. Within a year, they send the rail train back through to pick up the old rails. Then, they pick up the spacers and straps that kept the rails out of contact with the third rail.

One thing you should notice is, that due to the staggering amount of prep work, the Big Day doesn't necessarily require a large crew. A significant fraction of the day is held back for contingencies, so if nothing goes wrong, crews will get to see their families Christmas evening. They'll be pretty tired, though.

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