More 20% of train services that were running before the Covid pandemic have not returned, new data shows.
A BBC analysis has revealed that one month after work-from-home guidance was lifted, some commuters are struggling to get to work amid a lack of trains and sudden cancellations.
The issues with commuting are likely to be increasing the lure of working from home and depriving city centre shopping and hospitality of revenue from office workers.
Rail minister Wendy Morton has not guaranteed that services would return to pre-pandemic levels. People were now working differently in a “changing landscape” with people “starting to blend home and the office”, she said, adding it was now necessary to “balance the mix”.
“We are not where we were previously,” she said.
The government said it had spent more than £14bn supporting the railways after passenger numbers, and ticket revenue, collapsed during the Covid pandemic.
High levels of staff absence because of Covid and the need to isolate also led to services being suspended and cancelled.
The Rail Delivery Group, which represents operators, said 19,500 trains were now running per day, which is equivalent to 79% of overall pre-Covid services. This was expected to rise to 85% by the end of the month it said, but current passenger demand was still below the capacity available, suggesting that rail companies felt little incentive to increase services.
The latest figures from the Department for Transport show that on Monday this week, passenger usage was about 64% of pre-pandemic levels.
Disruption to driver training caused by the pandemic and continuing high sickness and isolation rates were among further reasons for the lack of services.
Road traffic, meanwhile, has rebounded, with car journeys approaching pre-pandemic levels despite record high petrol prices of £1.48 per litre, new road closures and fines, speed traps and ubiquitous temporary traffic lights.
Business groups say train services need to be running to help local economies, but also to help cut pollution from car journeys.
Engineering – such as the closure of a large portion of London’s Northern Line tube – and utility works were adding further delays to journeys by all modes of transport, and incentivising workers to remain at home.
Raj Kandola, from the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, told the BBC: “We need an appropriate level of service to get people back to the office. At the same time, we need to get people get out of their cars if we are going to reduce the amount of congestion on our polluted road networks.”
Research carried out in 2021 suggested that 6.7% of the UK’s working population was now commuting by bike but this number is likely to have fallen over winter.