Coronavirus: Demand for travel continues to plummet

Traffic volumes have now fallen by 71% on the roads compared with the first week of February while domestic rail passenger journeys are down 95%, Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris has told MPs.

The Minister updated the Transport Select Committee on the impacts of Coronavirus on travel during a virtual hearing on Tuesday. “The Department and the transport sector continue to play a critical role in the fight against Coronavirus,” he said.

Chris Heaton-Harris thanked all those working in transport “for their continued efforts and work to delay the spread of the virus and keep transport networks open for those who cannot work from home, including a lot of our front line workers, and ensuring critical goods like food and medicines can get to the places they are needed”.

Further statistics offered by the Minister included that UK air traffic has now fallen 92% on the equivalent day in 2019 and bus and coach passengers outside London have dropped by 88%.

In the capital – which has to date been the worst hit by the pandemic – Tube travel is down 94%, bus patronage 80% and traffic on the road network has declined by 63%.

“The public are very much taking heed of the messages given and leaving our transport networks open to key workers and freight movements.” He added that reduced rail timetables are being used as an opportunity to increase freight movements across the network.

Transport Select Committee member Greg Smith – MP for Buckingham – questioned the Minister on reports that on going construction works, including enabling works for High Speed 2, are not following social distancing guidelines.

He asked: “What steps is the Department taking to ensure contractors working on Government led projects are following the Government guidance?”

Chris Heaton-Harris responded: “For these big construction projects, where work is able to continue we would like it to continue. But we want the businesses, companies and individuals to take the appropriate advice that has been given by Public Health England and to ensure they are socially distancing.

“We have been unbelievably forceful, emphatic, in telling that to all who are working for HS2, Network Rail; any arms-length body that we might have any influence over.”

The session also addressed support announced on Friday to protect bus services for those who rely on them for essential travel. A £397M funding package was pledged by the Government for bus operators to keep services running at a sufficient level to meet reduced demand, while allowing adequate space between passengers on board.

Former Transport Select Committee chair Lilian Greenwood – MP for Nottingham South – directed a question to Transport Minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton on whether the support will be adequate.

“We are confident,” replied the Baroness. “We came up with the number in very close consultation with bus operators themselves.”