A few days before the government imposed the first English national lockdown last March, Sadiq Khan and Transport for London moved quickly to scale back public transport services and urged people not to use them unless they were “critical workers”. The Waterloo & City line was suspended and around 40 Underground stations were closed.
But this time TfL says that – contrary to reports elsewhere – it has no plans to repeat last spring’s dramatic steps, even though Covid-19 infection rates have soared to comparable levels, the new variant of the coronavirus is much more transmissible, and the new government lockdown rules are very similar to the first set.
Why the difference? TfL says the government has slightly enlarged the range of reasons it is acceptable to travel, notably to include visiting people in support bubbles and providing childcare, which means maintaining normal public transport capacity is more desirable.
Also, there hasn’t been the same scale of fall-off in passenger numbers as before. As of 10.00 a.m. yesterday, the number of Tube entries and exits was 18% of the usual pre-pandemic figure while, bus tap-ins were at 30%. These are obviously much lower numbers than in normal times, but the falls during the first lockdown were even bigger, with demand at some points dropping to a mere 10% of normal for both bus and Tube. (The intervening, less severe tightening of restrictions in November, sometimes called Lockdown 2, saw Tube levels at about 25% of normal and bus levels at about 45%).
Last time, there was a public difference of opinion between transport secretary Matt Hancock and the Mayor over the level of Tube services, with Hancock maintaining that the more trains that were running, the easier it would be for people to practise social distancing in them and the Mayor saying that reducing public transport services as a whole would ensure a reliable level for those “critical workers” in the context of many TfL staff being likely to fall ill or having to self-isolate.
There was logic in both perspectives. Perhaps a significant difference ten months on is simply that not quite as many people are quite as anxious about using public transport – perhaps reassured by TfL’s drive to rebuild confidence in the Covid-safety of the network – meaning the scope for cutting services back is in any case more limited.
Also, the ridership figures for yesterday were almost exactly the same as they had been on Monday and Tuesday at a time of year when it is normal to see demand rising daily as people emerge from the Christmas holiday period. Maybe that will be the “new normal’ for London public transport use, at least until the next one comes along.
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