Offices and schools about to reopen – but will commuters return?

In all the change and loss during the pandemic, few have mourned the disappearance of the daily commute. Many rail passengers, battered in preceding years by strikes on Southern, the timetabling fiasco on Northern and technical woes on Great Western, have welcomed a break.

But leisure rail travel is booming again – and with schools set to return next week and many offices expected to fill up again for the first time since Britain lifted Covid restrictions, train operators are anxiously waiting to see whether commuting will follow.

The Treasury committed an extra £10bn to cover the railway’s lost income in the pandemic, but will not continue to pay such sums for the long term. Transport for London (TfL), which owns and runs the capital’s underground and buses, is being propped up with handouts from Westminster. Amid talks about service levels and jobs, the return – or not – of commuters has urgent implications for the railway’s future.

A year ago, ministers encouraged commuters back: the likes of Dominic Raab proclaimed, then without irony: “The economy needs to have people back at work.” This time, ministers have not explicitly cajoled; but with most adults vaccinated, the furlough scheme ending and employers increasingly calling staff back to the office, the chances of a widespread return may be higher. How long that lasts is another matter: with autumn approaching and masks no longer compulsory on trains, the idea of cramming on to a carriage as coughs and colds take hold may mean that recovery in passenger numbers is short lived.

The lure of the beach, as train bosses have noted, has overcome hesitancy for now. Bookings this weekend exceed pre-pandemic levels for many destinations, predominantly those by the sea. Leisure rail trips are now at 97% of pre-Covid levels, compared with 58% of journeys overall.

It comes amid the railway’s emotive advertising campaign to lure passengers back – one focused more on happy families exploring the outdoors than images of commuters on packed TransPennine carriages.

But advertising the daily slog might not be absurd: some argue the commute is a positively beneficial ritual. James R Bailey, a professor at George Washington University, says its structure, predictability, and clear boundary around work life helps mental health and restores purpose.

And the commuter, according to some studies, may be tapping into a primeval and universal urge. In the 1970s, the transport academic Yacov Zahavi found a similar tolerated “travel time budget” existed across multiple countries and settings, loosely an hour a day. This idea was developed by the Italian scientist Cesare Marchetti into an “anthropological invariant”. Namely, everyone from the stone age to future dwellers on the north-eastern leg of HS2 rail line has an instinct to commute for an hour. The rail commuters just go further and faster.

While Marchetti also stressed that a human was “a cave animal” and liked to spend at least two-thirds of time at home, most would have had their fill of late. The “welcome back” slogans on rail has been echoed in similar transport campaigns in London, while Manchester has put it succinctly: “It’s time”.

Jacqueline Starr, the chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which lobbies of the rail industry, said she was expecting to see more commuters from September but that the numbers would take some time to return to anything like those of 2019. Part-time and flexible working will bring new midweek peaks, she said. “Watching the corporate organisations’ policies, there’s a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday pattern emerging. And from the data we’re already getting, Tuesday is the most popular day to travel.”

Flexible season tickets have been introduced to match, although they have been criticised by consumers for offering insufficient savings – and displeasing an unwilling Treasury, which fears further undermining the falling revenue stream from traditional season ticket sales.

Although ministers have recently talked up the prospect of passengers returning in full, industry sources say most believe numbers will plateau at 80% of pre-pandemic levels – leaving difficult questions around costs. However unpleasant it was, those carriages stuffed with long-suffering season ticket holders delivered a healthy stream of cash to the Treasury.

The end of rail franchises has left the financial risk shouldered by the government, with little incentive for individual operators to run more services or attract new passengers. But there is broader pressure to cut costs: redundancies will play a part, and two rail operators, South Western and ScotRail have already indicated services will be cut in their next timetable.

journeys by car and public transport graphic

For some, this is alarming, threatening to repeat past spirals of decline: fewer trains means many journeys become less viable, and rail less attractive. Ominously, industry sources say the areas most likely to suffer service cuts are subsidy-reliant branch lines in the north of England and rural areas – the very areas the government has pledged to invest in. Government figures show private car usage has already surpassed pre-Covid traffic, while public transport wanes. Chris Page, the chairman of the campaign group Railfuture, says: “The rail industry needs to control its cost base to deal with the realities of the pandemic, but cutting services will lead to lower rail usage and declining revenue.”

London, where weekday tube usage is now about 50% of pre-pandemic levels, up from a nadir of 5% in 2020, has fought to restore virtually a full timetable, despite heavy financial pressures. With fare revenues of about £5bn covering almost three-quarters of TfL’s budget, it depends more than most cities on effective public transport – for funding and to function without congestion, says Vernon Everitt, TfL’s managing director for customers, communication and technology.

He is optimistic, though, saying: “London is incredibly resilient and will bounce back.” That has started with leisure weekend travel, now at about 60% of pre-Covid numbers on the tube, and between 10 and 15 percentage points higher on bus and rail.

That bodes well, Everitt says, though only the coming months will tell how much commuters will make a difference. The lifting of Covid restrictions came just as schools closed and holidays started.

Nonetheless, TfL has this month seen its busiest days since early 2020 on recent Thursdays at Farringdon, Bank and Canary Wharf stations. Meanwhile, traffic has more doubled to 36,000 journeys a week on the quintessential banker’s line, the Waterloo & City, since it reopened in June.

TfL, like Manchester, has reached out to employers to encourage more off-peak travel, and hopes the shape of the commuting day changes. London’s rush hour is already earlier than before, and less crowded, Everitt says. “After 8.15am or 6pm there’s a huge amount of capacity on the network.”

Above all, he says, cities must head off the “car-led recovery”. Active travel is part of that – TfL has seen record numbers hiring its Santander bikes, and says more than 62 miles (100km) of new or upgraded cycle lanes are being or have been built since the pandemic hit.

But the tube pays the way, and fears over Covid remain – even if, contrary to some perception, Hewitt says. The underground is well ventilated; moving trains suck air into the tunnels, carriage doors open and close frequently, while testing by Imperial College has found no traces of the virus on surfaces or in the air.

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Commuters returning now “will be struck by how clean the place is”, says Everitt. “The regime has gone up several gears: we’re using antiviral stuff all round the network, ultraviolet light fittings on escalator handrails to kill viruses, there are hand sanitisers everywhere.”

Mask-wearing remains a condition of carriage in London, unlike most national rail. That means, according to the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the risk of contracting Covid onboard trains has gone up. Starr continues to wear a mask – “it’s what makes me feel safe” – and, quoting data from the independent watchdog Transport Focus, says: “There’s still a lot of apprehension but nine out of 10 people making journeys with us really feel safe doing so,.”

Starr now commutes two days a week from north Somerset to London instead of four, and likes “the romanticism, peace and tranquillity”. She adds: “I find it a luxury that I have a long journey to do what I need, and feel semi-relaxed at the other end.“ Great Western and the rest will be crossing their fingers that many more commuters may again feel the same.

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