COVID-19: Rail passenger numbers fall to lowest level since time of steam trains in 1872
The number of people travelling on Britain’s railways has reached its lowest level since at least 1872, during the time of steam trains.
Figures from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) show that just 388 million journeys were made in the 12 months to the end of March.
The beginning of that period marked the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown in the UK, which resulted in the collapse of demand for train travel.
The number of journeys made during that year was just 22% of the 1.739 billion journeys seen the previous year.
The months between April and June last year were the low point, with just 35 million journeys made.
Over the next three months, as restrictions were eased, the number of journeys rose to 133 million.
Between October and December last year they were up to 139 million.
But then came national lockdown and just 80 million journeys were made in the first three months of this year.
Passenger revenue was also hit: the £1.9bn taken in the year 2020-21 was just 18% of the £10.4bn generated in the previous 12 months.
ORR director of planning and performance Graham Richards said: “This unprecedented fall in passenger numbers, the lowest annual fall since the time series began, has clearly had an impact on both rail usage and ticketing revenue.
“Despite this, recent estimates published by the Department for Transport show that rail usage has recovered to around 45% of pre-COVID levels by the end of May 2021.”
Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at industry body the Rail Delivery Group, commented: “Despite plummeting passenger numbers during the last year, Britain’s trains have helped to keep key workers and people who cannot work from home on the move throughout the pandemic.
“As restrictions are lifted, the rail industry, through our safer travel pledge, will welcome more people back to train travel and help to support the country’s economic recovery.”
Railway historian Christian Wolmar said that the rail network in 1872 – when passenger numbers were last at such low levels – was not integrated, meaning journeys took much longer.
Mr Wolmar said the rail network and operators needed to find the correct focus for their campaign to get people back on the trains.
He told PA news agency: “Far too much energy is going into sanitising handles and all that, rather than trying to reassure people that actually with the ventilation you have on railways, air conditioning and so on, it’s very safe.
“There needs to be a big marketing campaign.
“That needs to include fare offers. Instead of putting the fares up – which is what happened in March – the fares need to come down both across the board but also there needs to be lots of good offers [such as] two for one, get the family on free.”
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