What happened to the big return? Millions are still working from home

 (Bill Mcconkey)
(Bill Mcconkey)

There were growing concerns on Monday that the “big return” to the central London workplace has stalled.

Millions of rail journeys a month that were made in and out of the capital before the pandemic are no longer occurring on weekdays, despite the post-Covid economic recovery, according to the latest travel data.

London’s three main commuter railways — South Western, Southeastern and GoVia Thameslink, which runs Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern — carry about 22 million fewer passengers a month than four years ago.

All admit that their “metro” services between the capital’s suburbs and central London have been the slowest to recover. Experts say office working provides a boost to the economy and can improve creativity and well-being,

Angie Doll, chief executive at GoVia Thameslink Railway, said: “We are not seeing the level of people commuting five days a week that we saw pre-covid.

“We are seeing people commute on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – and that pattern is absolutely set now. I can’t see that changing again.

“Due to covid, people established working from home in a way they never thought was going to be possible. Two years after covid, we are not seeing that balance change.”


Fewer passengers per month on Govi Thameslink than before Covid

Latest figures from the Office of Rail and Road show that GoVia Thameslink — the largest rail franchise — has been carrying a total of about 20 million passengers a month, compared with about 30 million pre-pandemic.

Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly’s transport committee, suggested rail firms should consider two types of fares — one for Tuesday to Thursday and the other for travel between Friday and Monday. She said: “Train operators should incentivise people back to the railways.”

South Western Railway told a London Assembly inquiry that its metro services in and out of Waterloo were at 68 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Southeastern and GoVia Thameslink said passenger demand on suburban services was at 75 per cent. South Western’s monthly passenger demand has fallen from almost 18 million to just over 11 million.

People on the concourse at Waterloo (PA)
People on the concourse at Waterloo (PA)

Southeastern’s numbers have fallen from 15 million journeys a month to 10 million. South Western Railway said its passenger numbers were “static” at 75 per cent across its network, but 74 per cent in the suburban area, and just 68 per cent on traditional commuter services in and out of Waterloo.

“We are the slowest return of all the networks,” managing director Claire Mann said. “There has been a real drop-off. In the metro area, and specifically through Waterloo, we are at about 68 per cent now of where we were before Covid. We are seeing the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday pattern in terms of the return,” Ms Mann said. “Mondays and Fridays are quiet.”

Peter Williams, customer and commercial director at SWR, told the Standard: “In the past, pre-Covid, Fridays were already weaker days. It was already a four-day commute for some people.”

On the Tube and other Transport for London services, such as the Elizabeth line, the situation is more encouraging.

In the most recent four-week period, to mid-July, there were 94.1 million Tube journeys, up almost 13 million on a year ago. In addition, there were 16.7 million rail journeys on the Elizabeth line or the Overground, up more than five million on last year.


Percentage of overall Tube demand compared with pre-Covid

However, Tube travel appears to be plateauing at under 100 million journeys a month. Pre-pandemic, it would consistently reach three figures — rising to almost 120 million a month around the festive season.

Overall Tube demand is at 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels — lower on weekdays but often above 100 per cent at weekends, due to soaring leisure activity. But on the first Friday in September it was only 69 per cent — and 77 per cent the following Monday.

SWR says its passengers are more likely to work in senior positions or belong to the managerial classes than other train companies — meaning that they are more likely to have the ability and authority to work from home.

Its twofold strategy is to “remind customers of the benefits of office life” and to make it as easy as possible to travel. One innovation is an Oyster-style tap-to-go smartcard that offers weekly fare capping.


Fall in passengers on South Western

All three operators are running fewer trains than previously in a bid to control costs — typically, about 15 per cent of services have been axed. This has resulted in some peak trains becoming overcrowded, such as on South Western’s Epsom to Waterloo service.

Mr Williams said: “We have not given up on the weekly commute. But commuters are telling us that their travel patterns are fixed in the short term. But there are nuances. Younger people show more willingness to get into the office. It’s important for them to build their profile — and to socialise after work.

“There are also some employers who hope that at some point they’re able to coax their colleagues into the office more frequently. But with the cost of living pressures, they don’t feel that now is the right time to be insisting on that.”

Experts told the Standard that hybrid working had changed demand for business travel. The Advantage Travel Partnership, which represents travel agents, said demand had increased for overnight conferences as firms sought to bring together staff who spend most of the time working remotely.

“What historically would have been regarded as a commute is now regarded as business travel,” said ATP global business travel director Guy Snelgar.

The Advantage Travel Partnership, which has about 90 staff, closed its London office and moved to flexible working.

Mr Snelgar said: “What that does mean is that we have to put a bit more work into keeping a company culture. We put time into organising events and gatherings to bring people together. That is something we have seen from large corporate organisations.”

Rail firms say they have also been adversely affected by ongoing industrial action by the RMT and Aslef. There have been 25 days of action by the RMT since June last year and 11 by Aslef.

These have forced trains to be cancelled or, in the case of strikes by drivers belonging to Aslef, shut entire networks. Southeastern has been unable to run any trains on 13 days of Aslef strikes.

More train strikes are planned by Aslef on September 30 and October 4, while the RMT Tube station staff will strike on Octover 4 and 6.

Southeastern managing director Steve White said the strikes also damaged passenger confidence – and made them less likely to invest in season tickets.

“The three big operators in London and the South East have been some of the slowest to recover on a national scale,” he said.

However, Southeastern is aiming to increase its passenger numbers, and has a target of 135m journeys this year – up from 117m last year.

Southeastern will double the frequency of its high-speed trains between St Pancras and Faversham via Gravesend in December to a half-hourly service.

“We are preparing to grow,” Mr White said. “At the moment, our metro is lagging behind the recovery on the rest of our railway.

“We can see a world when there is no more industrial action and we can plug our profit and loss account back together again. That will make the business case for investment far easier than it is today.”