Passenger numbers fall to lowest level since 1872

Stations were empty during the first lockdown. This is Leeds in April 2020.

Official statistics, released by rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), show that rail passenger journeys in Great Britain fell to the lowest levels of annual passenger usage since 1872.

In the year April 2020 to March 2021, 388 million journeys were made nationally, only 22% of the 1,739 million made in 2019-20.

Naturally, this meant that income from fares was down too, with total passenger revenue in Great Britain £1.9 billion in 2020-21, compared to £10.4 billion in 2019-20.

While 80 million journeys were made during the final quarter (Q4 January to March) of 2020-21, this was down from the 139 million made in the previous quarter (Q3 October to December) and the 133 million in Q2 (July to September). However, it was still more than double the 35 million journeys made in 2020-21 Q1 (April to June).

The ORR believes that this unprecedented fall in usage can be attributed entirely to the impact of the pandemic.

Trains were cleaner than ever before, but had few passengers.

While every train operator reported a significant fall in ridership, there were regional variations.

Three operators of services in and around London recorded the highest levels of usage relative to 2019-20. TfL Rail (32.5%), London Overground (31.8%) and C2C (31.7%) were the only operators to record at least 30% of the journeys made in 2019-20.

Four more London and South East operators – South Western Railway, Southeastern, Greater Anglia (all 22.4%), and Govia Thameslink railway (21.8%) – recorded just over a fifth of journeys made in 2019-20.

Of the other franchised operators, Northern (20.3%) recorded the highest level of usage as a percentage of journeys made in 2019-20. ScotRail (14.9%) and TfW Rail (15.8%) recorded the lowest levels of relative usage.

Interestingly, Merseyrail (29.5%) and Caledonian Sleeper (24.9%) recorded the fourth and fifth-highest journey numbers as a percentage of 2019-20.

Heathrow Express, which operated throughout the year, recorded the lowest level of usage as a percentage (4.7%) of journeys made in 2019-20. The other two UK open access opeerators, Grand Central and Hull Trains, both of which suspended services completely during the height of the lockdowns, reported usage as only 11.8% and 7.4% of the previous year respectively.

Eurostar, the fourth UK open-access operator, was not included in the ORR’s figures.

Graham Richards, ORR.

ORR director of planning and performance Graham Richards commented: “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.

“ORR continues to work closely to support industry and help passengers back on to the railway safely.”

Robert Nisbet, Rail Delivery Group.

Commenting on ORR’s passenger rail usage statistics, Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at the Rail Delivery Group, said: “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.”

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