Demand for rail travel sank to mid-19th century levels following the coronavirus outbreak, new figures show.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) said more than 400 million fewer journeys were made between April and June compared with the same period in 2019.
Just 35 million journeys were made during the quarter this year.
Passenger revenue between April and June was £184 million, just 6.9% of the £2.7 billion in the same period last year.
Department for Transport (DfT) figures show demand has since returned to around 38% of normal levels.
ORR director of railway planning and performance Graham Richards said: “This unprecedented fall in passenger numbers, the largest on record to levels last seen in the mid-19th century, has clearly had an impact on both rail usage and also ticketing revenue.
“These figures include the period of lockdown and reassuringly we’re now seeing passenger numbers slowly increase.
“ORR has worked closely with the industry, and continues to do so, to ensure the necessary health and safety advice and guidance is in place.
“Rail is one of the safest ways to travel and our inspectors continue to monitor the reality on the ground to ensure people have the confidence that they can travel safely.”
Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions at industry body the Rail Delivery Group, said: “With the majority of company bosses planning to keep some home-working beyond the pandemic, train companies are keen to work with Government to introduce flexible season tickets that will incentivise more people safely back on to trains.
“Fares reform is a crucial component of wider industry proposals to enable train operators to better respond to the rapidly evolving needs of their local customers.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, warned that “urgent radical steps” are required to support public transport.
He said: “There has been welcome Government support for the rail industry but more needs to be done, especially as some services such as Grand Central and Hull Trains are teetering on the brink and the railway supply chain is now also shedding jobs.”
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), said: “The daily commute may have been altered forever, so it’s now more important than ever that people use our railways for leisure activities instead of getting into cars.
“Electric rail is cleaner and safer for our environment and has many health advantages as well as helping to tackle climate change.
“It’s vital that Government encourages people to use rail travel in safe and responsible ways.”
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “The significant decline in passenger numbers reflects people acting on Government guidance early in the pandemic to travel only if essential, helping tackle the virus and ensure space was preserved for key workers.
“We took immediate action and have invested billions to maintain the services people rely on, protecting frontline jobs and ensuring railways stand ready to support our national recovery.”
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