Train operators may have to gear up for a 1950s-style future, where the biggest passenger demand is for summer day trips to the seaside rather than the morning commute to the office, industry bosses have suggested, as leisure travel is growing faster than the return to work.
Rail firms have reported far busier weekend services and crowding on coastal routes, while London commuter trains remain largely empty.
The chair of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy, said: “Leisure travel has returned quicker than work travel … A scenario we might have in our heads is going back to the 1950s, when maximum traffic was on summer Saturdays rather than weekday peak hours.”
Hendy said footfall at Britain’s busiest commuter station, London Waterloo, had reached 36% of pre-Covid levels on Thursday, “which was busier than it’s been for weeks and weeks but nothing like the railways we used to know”.
Speaking at a Transport Times online summit, a number of train firms reported similar patterns of usage.
Steve Montgomery, head of rail at First Group, which runs four UK franchises, said its TransPennine service had recovered more swiftly than southern routes. But he said it was still “predominantly leisure travel,” adding that “at the weekends we are having difficulties maintaining social distancing on our trains.”
Weekday passenger numbers, however, remain low. First Group, he said, was not witnessing a return to commuting on any of its rail businesses. As well as TransPennine the group operates Avanti West Coast, Great Western Railway and South Western Railway.
Katy Taylor, commercial director of Go-Ahead, which includes the Govia Thameslink Railway, said the coronavirus lockdown had accelerated existing trends towards remote working and the rail network might never again have the same number of passengers as before: “People have liked not being so crowded – I don’t think people are going to accept a nose in people’s armpit for an hour coming into London Bridge any more.”
Montgomery said summer day trippers were prepared to tolerate more crowds than those who use the trains to get to work: “Commuters will not be happy coming back on to [busy] trains … but what we saw on warm weekends is that people are prepared to do it when it suits them.”
Network Rail’s chief executive, Andrew Haines, said many season ticket holders who could now work easily at home would be making “sizeable gains”. He said: “People who are in stable jobs with a long-distance commute, we’ve got a hell of a job to persuade them.”
He added: “People are choosing how they socially distance … We’ve got overcrowding on the Cornish branch lines, and the Paddington to Slough line is empty.”
London Underground passenger numbers have also been consistently stronger at weekends as a proportion of their pre-Covid levels. Over the last three Saturdays and Sundays passenger numbers have averaged more than 40% of 2019 weekend figures, while September weekdays have been between 33% and 37% of last year’s equivalent days.
Data from the Department for Transport suggests that the trend for greater weekend travel – with weekdays now more likely spent at home – is even more pronounced on buses and roads.
Since mid-August, weekend road traffic has been higher than in 2019, while Monday-Friday traffic has yet to reach pre-pandemic weekday levels.
Despite government and local authorities encouraging people to travel by bicycle, weekday cycling journeys have also now dipped slightly below 2019 levels, although they remain up at weekends. Last Sunday the number of cycle journeys was 195% of the same time last year – almost double the 2019 rate.