THOUSANDS of anxious rail travellers yesterday swamped a train company helpline in a desperate race to pre-book seats for Christmas travel.

On the day GNER published its emergency Christmas timetables - designed to bring an end to the chaos caused by the Hatfield crash - 10,000 passengers phoned the company's Newcastle call centre in the first four hours. The telephone system reached meltdown under the strain.

The stampede for tickets came after GNER, which operates the East Coast mainline between London and Scotland, said all passengers on its services between December 21 and January 3 would have to reserve seats in advance.

GNER said that in only four hours, staff handled double the number of calls they would expect in a day.

Part-time staff at the call centre, which employs 200 people, were working full-time, and full-time staff were working overtime.

A company spokesman said: "We were expecting a rush of customers trying to book their tickets and it certainly has been very busy.

"All we know is that there has been an intermittent fault with the telephone system but we don't know what has caused it."

Publishing its emergency Christmas timetable, the company said its restriction on seats was necessary to avoid overcrowding for travellers facing Christmas services running at 40 per cent of normal.

GNER spokesman Alan Hyde said: "We have got to control the numbers of people travelling or there could be severe overcrowding.

"It is not ideal but it is a decision we have had to take because of the extreme conditions within which we are having to work."

The announcement means many people from the North-East who live in different parts of the country face an anxious wait as they try desperately to get home for Christmas.

At Newcastle and York stations, passengers were facing queues of up to 90 minutes to book tickets.

On the platform at Darlington station, soldiers from Catterick Garrison were concerned that military personnel given leave at short notice could be especially hard hit. Stephen Hall said: "We do not get much time to book in advance, so if we were trying to get anywhere by train in a hurry we could be stuck here for our leave."

Jonathan Bray, of passenger campaign group Platform, said the railway companies would suffer in the long term unless there was an improvement.

He said: "We are hearing stories of people saying, 'We have had enough, and we're not going to spend our lives suffering in this way'."

The chaos on the railways has meant a boom for coach operator National Express and the region's airports.

Newcastle Airport has seen a 44 per cent increase in passengers on scheduled flights to Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports, and passengers from Teesside Airport are up by about 20 per cent.

But there was some good news for rail travellers between Sunderland and Middlesbrough via Hartlepool.

The track has been closed because of a landslip near Hartlepool, but last night Northern Spirit said some peak time services would resume today, and buses would continue to be provided the rest of the time.

l Royal Mail bosses are to lay on additional flights from Teesside Airport in a bid to clear the Christmas post backlog in the region.

Rail Watch - Page 2