Commuters have been heeding the government’s warning to avoid the train network, after rail operators reported a small increase in passenger numbers despite providing more services as England edged back to work.
The numbers of passengers using London’s main stations during the usual morning rush-hour period on Monday edged up compared with last week, but were still only about 8% of normal levels, according to figures released by Network Rail.
Train companies increased the number of services from Monday morning after coronavirus restrictions were eased in England. This week about 3,000 more trains a day will run, taking the daily number up to between 15,000-16,000. About 24,000 normally run each day before the lockdown.
While six out of eight main London stations – including King’s Cross, Euston and Paddington – showed increases in passenger numbers between 5am and 9.30am on Monday, Network Rail said “a marginal increase in footfall for some stations” had resulted in no reports of physical distancing or crowding issues.
The message that there had been no significant increase in passengers was reiterated in other parts of England by First Group, which operates franchises including Great Western Railway, South Western Railway and TransPennine Express; Northern Rail, which runs services into Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool; and West Midlands Railway, which carries commuters into Birmingham.
The low level of passengers combined with the expanded timetable is giving train operators some help in implementing physical distancing measures onboard trains. In an effort to enable physical distancing, capacity on trains will be reduced to as little as 10% of normal levels and passengers are being urged to avoid non-essential travel. British Transport Police will have more officers at London stations in to control crowds.
Will Rogers, the managing director at East Midlands Railway, said the new timetable would allow a small rise in the number of passengers EMR could accommodate.
“We urge everyone to only go by train if it is necessary and keep public transport for key workers and those who must travel,” he added.
Passengers travelling by train are being asked to wear a face covering and keep a 2-metre distance from other people where possible. Transport operators are being urged by the government to rearrange, remove or limit seating “to try and ensure social distancing is observed”.
This may include blocking off seats in close proximity to others and removing face-to-face seating.
Passengers using London North Eastern Railway are allowed to board trains only if they hold a reservation as well as a ticket.
The operator is asking passengers to sit in a window seat, with one person per row of four seats, and two empty rows between each passenger.
People travelling as a household will be allowed to sit together but must maintain “a safe distance” from other passengers.
Avanti West Coast warned its customers that anyone without a reservation may not be able to travel on their choice of train.
The number of rail services have been reduced for weeks owing to a collapse in demand and a rise in staff sickness during the pandemic.
But the government is now urging people in England to go to work if they cannot work from home. Advice in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales remains that people should stay at home.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union expressed concern that “rushed political considerations could well override the safety issues for staff and passengers”.
It has called for the enforcement of 2-metre physical distancing on trains and the compulsory wearing of face masks by passengers which should be provided for free at stations and be able to be disposed of safely.
Mick Cash, the RMT general secretary, said: “We are opposed to the early relaxation of lockdown measures and believe that non-essential workers should avoid using trains. When people absolutely must use a train, there should be new compulsory protections.”
A Department for Transport spokesman said the message remained that people should only go to work if they cannot work from home and they should avoid public transport if possible and maintain physical distancing if they have no other choice.