The Government is in talks with rail leaders over putting emergency measures in place to deal with falling passenger numbers, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Industry sources say the number of people travelling on some routes has already fallen by more than one third. Overall, the figure was put at 18% as of March 15, but that had risen to around 70% by March 19. The latest passenger figures are difficult to verify because many tickets are not purchased digitally, so it takes time for the correct numbers to be recorded.
With fewer people travelling to offices, and more encouraged to work from home, several train operators believe they will be unable to meet their franchise obligations.
Options being discussed with the Department for Transport are thought to include permission to reduce the number of services on a temporary basis and flexibility over franchise payments.
The number of trains which operate, the price of tickets, the amount companies pay Network Rail for track access, and the premiums some operators pay to run services are all contained within franchise contracts.
Veteran rail executive Sir Michael Holden said: “I think the absolute priority right now should be to keep the trains running. Two Direct Awards expire in less than a fortnight with no replacement yet announced, and a number of other train operating companies are fast running out of cash. All will follow over time, the longer this crisis goes on.”
A DfT spokesman said: “We recognise how difficult the current situation is for the transport sector, and we are engaging with the sector’s leadership to support workers, businesses and passengers.”
Steve White, chief operating officer of Govia Thameslink Railway (the biggest passenger franchise), warned: “The reality is that we are seeing fewer people travelling already. I got a seat home on the District Line. That never happens! We must expect to see our workforce significantly affected by this virus. I think the world will change very quickly in a matter of days.
“It won’t happen in a controlled way. We will have pockets in different locations. The rate of change in the workforce will not necessarily match the change in ridership and inclination to travel. We need to watch this daily and adapt the industry policy to mitigate it as best we can.”
- For the FULL story on how COVID-19 has already started affecting the railway, read RAIL 901, published on March 25, and available digitally now.
- For the FULL story regarding timetables and the railway's ongoing response to the COVID-19 situation, read RAIL 902, published on April 8, and available digitally from April 4.