Bank holiday travel: How bad will it be on trains, planes and roads?

Line closure: Network Rail engineers working on the West Coast main line near Watford (Simon Calder)
Line closure: Network Rail engineers working on the West Coast main line near Watford (Simon Calder)

Over the busiest late May bank holiday weekend since 2019, some long-distance rail travellers will be obliged to make 150-mile journeys entirely by bus – even having to change coaches along the way.

Wide-ranging railway closures could persuade more people to travel by road, resulting in even greater congestion at key points on the motorway network as the post-pandemic travel surge continues.

The late May bank holiday also marks the start of a week’s half-term for most UK schools. Some airports will handle their highest number of passengers ever for a late May bank holiday, with Manchester expecting 100,000 travellers per day through the holidays.

The Port of Dover is expecting another busy bank holiday weekend and has told coach operators they must use a dedicated border processing facility for most of Friday and Saturday. Ferry travellers in Scotland will be affected by Caledonian MacBrayne’s continuing shortage of vessels.

The Independent has researched the key pinch points for travellers on all major forms of transport.


Network Rail is closing some key intercity lines for planned engineering work over the long weekend. The organisation says: “People needing to travel between Saturday 25 May and Monday 27 May could have longer journeys, fewer available seats, and may need to use rail-replacement buses.”

Passengers attempting to travel on the West Coast main line, linking Glasgow with northwest England with London, will see trains replaced by buses for the northernmost 150 miles.

Network Rail says £24m is being invested “to enable smoother and more reliable journeys for passengers and freight services”.

A key part of the work is taking place at Shap in Cumbria. Network Rail says: “A specialised ‘drain train’ will refurbish over 2.5km [1.5 miles] of drainage to reduce flooding incidents on the West Coast main line.”

The journey between Glasgow Central and Oxenholme Lake District in Cumbria, normally a journey of around one hour 45 minutes on Avanti West Coast, will require a change of rail-replacement buses at Carlisle and is scheduled to take more than twice as long.

Further disruption will take place around Crewe and in the Milton Keynes area. Buses will replace trains between Shrewsbury and Crewe, affecting Transport for Wales passengers.

No services will run via Huddersfield on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 May, extending journey times over the Pennines between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York.

As is customary over any bank holiday, the main Greater Anglia line between Norwich, Ipswich and London will be blocked in Essex – specifically between Shenfield and Witham – with passengers obliged to take rail-replacement buses.

On Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 May, work on the new HS2 line in Wendover, Buckinghamshire wlll lead to the cancellation of trains between London Marylebone and Aylesbury.

The North Kent line between Gravesend and Rochester will be blocked. The following weekend, from 1 June, the key southeast London commuter line between Blackheath and Charlton will close for 10 weeks due to repairs to a 175-year-old tunnel.

The long and bitter dispute between the train drivers’ union, Aslef, and rail firms contracted by the government continues, but no industrial action is planned for the bank holiday or half term. It is thought unlikely that any strikes will be called during the election campaign.


Tens of thousands of football fans supporting the two big Manchester sides, City and United, will travel from northwest England to Wembley for the FA Cup final on Saturday. They will place particular pressure on key stretches of the M6, M40 and M1.

Elsewhere, severe congestion is predicted – with this year’s late May bank holiday set to be the busiest on the roads since beginning of the pandemic.

The AA expects the worst day to travel will be Friday 24 May. Transport analytics specialists Inrix advises motorists to delay their departures until 6pm to miss the worst of the queues when both commuter and leisure drivers are sharing the roads.

Read more: Warning over bank holiday traffic delays as busiest weekend since pandemic expected

The M25 clockwise between junction 7 for the M23 (Gatwick and Brighton) and junction 21 (M1) is expected to bear the brunt of the traffic.

On Saturday, traffic is expected to peak between 3pm and 6pm. Inrix expects routes from cities to coasts to have some of the worst delays as drivers head to the seaside on what is expected to be the sunniest day of the weekend.

In the middle of the day, the M5 southwest to Devon is expected to be extremely busy between Bristol and Taunton. On Saturday afternoon, snarl-ups are anticipated on the M25 anticlockwise from the Heathrow area towards the M23.

Bob Pishue, transportation analyst at Inrix, advised drivers to “be prepared for long delays, especially in and around major cities and towards the coasts”.

“Travel as early or as late in the day as possible to avoid the worst delays,” he said.


Pressure on major airports is intense, with Manchester airport – the UK’s third busiest, after Heathrow and Gatwick – expecting an average of 100,000 passengers per day between Friday 24 May and Monday 2 June. The increase over the bank holiday will be 5 per cent up on a year earlier.

The airport is urging passengers to turn up at the earliest time the airline recommends.

London Stansted will handle slightly fewer passengers, with 375,000 anticipated between Friday and Monday. At East Midlands airport, Friday 24 May is set to be the busiest day of the period – with an average of 400 passengers per hour departing and a similar number returning.

Gatwick airport declined to reveal expected numbers. The Sussex airport’s top three destinations are Barcelona, Malaga and Faro, with the leading long-haul destinations being Dubai, New York and Orlando.

As work continues to install new security scanners, Birmingham airport is telling passengers: “Our upstairs queuing area has been taken out of action and customers queue downstairs. This is the new normal, as we construct our new security area.

“This transition is at times confusing for our customers with queuing and walking routes changing, however our colleagues are around for any help and assistance.”

A passenger named Patrick posted a picture of long queues outside the terminal at Birmingham airport. He wrote: “Line snaked through the entire interior of the airport. Started outside in this mess – got here 3.5 hours early – hoping for the best.”

The only pre-announced strikes during the half-term holiday are in Italy, with walk-outs planned for Tuesday 28 May by ground staff at the main Milan airports (Malpensa and Linate), Venice and Verona.


The post-Brexit hardening of the EU border at the Port of Dover is likely to bring long queues once again. French Police aux Frontières are obliged under the terms of the UK’s departure to check and stamp all passports.

Dover District Council said: “Operation Brock is in place to manage the flow of freight traffic to the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. The M20 remains open for tourist and local traffic.

“Kent and Medway Resilience Forum is working to keep traffic moving, and to keep Dover town centre open for local traffic and businesses.”

Coach operators have been told to use a dedicated processing facility at the port’s Western Docks from 6am on Friday 24 May until 5.30pm on Saturday 25 May. Passengers undergo initial checks ahead of screening at the Police aux Frontières checkpoint. The port is telling coach firms: “Ensure all individuals on board have their personal passports open and ready before the border controls.”

Ferry travellers in Scotland will be affected by Caledonian MacBrayne’s continuing shortage of vessels. Four sailings between Oban and the island of Mull are cancelled on Friday as the ship will be redeployed to and from Islay.

A large Caledonian MacBrayne ship, Caledonian Isles, is out of service due to extensive annual maintenance. In March, Robbie Drummond, chief executive of CalMac, said: “We know the fact we are having to redeploy vessels has caused concern in communities across the whole network.

”Given our fleet was already stretched to the limit, it is inevitable the loss of one of our larger vessels during peak season will cause some disruption across the wider network.”