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Rail journeys at 5% of normal levels as UK stays home

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Rail journeys in the UK are now at just 5% of normal levels, according to the latest government figures, as passengers heed calls to avoid non-essential travel due to coronavirus. Bus passenger numbers outside London are down 88% from the same time in 2019, with just under half of normal services running, while air traffic…

Rail journeys in the UK are now at just 5% of normal levels, according to the latest government figures, as passengers heed calls to avoid non-essential travel due to coronavirus.

Bus passenger numbers outside London are down 88% from the same time in 2019, with just under half of normal services running, while air traffic is down 92% compared with last year – with the few remaining flights mostly for either repatriation or cargo.

The transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris told the Commons transport select committee, in a parliamentary hearing held by video link, that overall road traffic was also down 71% for last year, falling by 83% on the strategic road network (motorways and trunk roads).

In London, tube journeys were down by 94%, while there were 80% fewer bus journeys than this last year, the minister said. The number of Cross-Channel Eurostar journeys was now just 1% of those taken daily in 2019.

Heaton-Harris said it showed that the public was heeding calls to stay home, and allowing space on rail and road for key workers and the flow of essential freight.

He said the government was working with unions to identify where there were shortages of personal protective equipment for frontline workers, and added: “We’re particularly saddened about the deaths of bus drivers – these tragic losses emphasise how much we owe to everyone participating in keeping essential services functioning.”

The Unite union said Transport for London had agreed that all buses in the capital would from Wednesday have additional safety measures to protect drivers, including fully sealed screens and nearby seats taken out of service.

While most rail services have been effectively temporarily nationalised, with the government shouldering the drop in revenues, and bus firms have been promised a £400m package of assistance to cover lost fares, airlines have stepped up their calls for help.

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) warned that up to 25m jobs worldwide depending on air travel were at risk, including 5.6m in Europe, as they urged governments to offer more loans and tax relief. Jobs relying on air links were predominantly in countries dependent on tourism, but supply chains for high-value manufacturing were also affected, Iata said.

Virgin Atlantic is the most prominent UK carrier that has applied for direct government aid, opening its books to the Treasury as it hopes for up to £500m in loans and credit guarantees.

Heaton-Harris would not confirm how many airlines were in contact with the government for state aid. But he said the government was “in very detailed dialogue” with companies, including firms from other parts of the aviation industry such as airports and suppliers.

He said the government would not rule out taking a stake in airlines that had appealed for Treasury help, saying: “Everything is on the table … We want to ensure this sector thrives.”

Air passengers and suppliers however have complained that they risk bearing the brunt of relief measures as Iata pushed for alterations to rules on refunds, allowing airlines to issue vouchers rather than repaying fares.

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The consumer association Which? has accused travel agents of breaking the law by not refunding passengers, and denounced Abta, the travel association, for advising travel agents to issue credit notes instead. However, Abta has said its members face bankruptcy and are unable to return cash to holidaymakers because airlines are stalling on refunds.

According to Iata, airlines have collectively already used $35bn (£28bn) of their $61bn cash reserves with most fleets grounded due to the pandemic.

Alexandre de Juniac, the director general of Iata, defended the use of vouchers: “Refunding is almost an unbearable task, financially speaking … We were perfectly conscious of the difficulty for the passenger, but it was a matter of survival for us.”

European governments have also agreed to defer until 2021 air traffic control fees amounting to about €1.1bn (£1bn) in a bid to assist airlines, for which De Juniac said the sector was profoundly thankful.

However, the move prompted Canso, which represents air traffic control businesses, to demand a rescue package for its sector, saying the decision posed a “significant financial challenge”.

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