Transport and business organisations from across the North West have revealed whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that people are returning in “huge numbers to the office” is starting to come true.
The Government was widely criticised on Tuesday when it made the claim amid its drive to stop people working from home – before saying it could not yet provide data to back up the assertion.
However, be it through pupils returning to school this week or indeed commuters coming back to offices, North West transport leaders say they have noticed an increase in passenger numbers in the first few rush hours of September.
Andy Heath, managing director at Merseyrail, said: “We are welcoming more passengers back on to the Merseyrail network as schools and workplaces reopen.
“We know that in these uncertain times it’s important that our passengers feel safe throughout their journey with us.
“We are reminding passengers that in line with the current government guidance, it won’t always be possible to socially distance during your journey and because of this, passengers must wear a face covering unless exempt.”
Mr Heath said so far, most people have been adhering to the Government Covid rules.
“We are pleased to say that the majority of our passengers have followed government guidance and worn a face covering on our trains and at our stations to protect others.
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“As more people start to use public transport again, it’s now more important than ever that our passengers follow the travel advice provided: wear a face covering unless exempt, travel at quieter times if possible, use contactless where you can and wash or sanitise hands before and after travel,” he said.
The Merseyside increase is backed up by the Liverpool BID company, who said Tuesday was the busiest of lockdown so far in terms of city centre footfall.
At 160,000, that meant a huge 18% increase on the previous Tuesday – despite that having been an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ meal discount day.
A spokeswoman said there could be other factors at play, but the figures suggested there were “several offices and places of work that welcomed people back on Tuesday”.
Transport for Greater Manchester said it had seen “gradual growth” over recent weeks, with a “slight increase” this week too.
A spokesperson said on Wednesday: “We’re still well below pre-Covid levels of patronage and obviously it varies by operator, but commercial bus capacity across the network is currently running at 35-50% and Metrolink is around 45-50%.
“More schools return on Thursday and next week, so we’re expecting to see more people start to use public transport over the coming days.”
Metrolink has said it expects “hundreds of thousands” of people to return to work across Greater Manchester during September, adding that it will have a “significant impact on public transport” – with timetable changes and enforced lower capacities on services.
Similarly, Northern Railway has called on rail travellers to prepare for timetable changes as the industry adapts to a ‘new normal’ as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
A spokesman for Arriva, which runs routes across Merseyside, Halton and the wider North West area, said it had increased the majority of its services to pre-Covid levels as of Sunday, and that early indications showed increased demand for its buses – particularly from school and college pupils.
A statement from the firm said: “We have worked closely with our local authorities and regional stakeholders to ensure Arriva provides a thorough school and college bus services.
“For some services, this will mean extra buses running on key routes at peak travelling times, some of which will be dedicated for school/college pupils only. Early indications show that our services are meeting the increased demand.
“However, we are continually monitoring customer demand and will review any additional resources to ensure they are deployed to the areas they are needed. We would like to thank our customers for continuing to follow social distancing and face covering guidance.”
Bus provider Stagecoach, which runs services across Manchester and Liverpool, said operations have so far “run very smoothly”.
A spokesman said: “We have been pleased with the co-operation from all of our customers.
“Extensive planning and detailed preparations have been put in place to make sure students and commuters can travel with us safely and confidently.”
The firm expects city centres “to get busier as the weeks and months go on”, and he added: “All Stagecoach services have been accredited with Visit Britain’s ‘We’re Good to Go’ official mark, recognising the work carried out to meet government and industry Covid-19 guidelines and the processes in place to maintain cleanliness and aid social distancing.
“The comprehensive regime includes daily deep cleans and contactless payments, in addition to the government’s mandatory use of face coverings.
“We’re expecting city centres to get busier as the weeks and month go on, and would encourage customers to download our app so they can use the busy bus indicator and live service updates to help plan their journey.”