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Low traffic shows workers prefer to remain at home

The great return to the workplace appears to have stalled with traffic levels well below even pre-Omicron levels.

Car usage has returned to an average of 86 per cent on weekdays since the government dropped its work from home guidance on January 20.

The number of motorists on the roads bounced back to 97 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in September last year as children returned to the classroom and employers urged workers to return to their desks.

They remained high until mid- December when Boris Johnson announced a return to home working as Omicron spread through the country.

That advice has been scrapped but numbers have not recovered to the autumn levels.

Jack Cousens, the AA’s head of roads policy, said: “It is beginning to look like car travel will settle close to 10 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, almost its own version of long Covid. With more employers allowing hybrid working, the shape of traffic has changed too with quieter morning and evening rush hours. The legacy of Covid may be that it got drivers into habits that will endure, such as online shopping.”

Rail passenger numbers have taken the biggest hit among commuters and recovery remains sluggish. While the figures have climbed to 55 per cent of pre-pandemic levels since work-from-home guidance was dropped last month, they are still down about 10 per cent compared with the autumn.

Cousens suggested that car travel had bounced back faster than other modes of public transport because it was considered a safer way to avoid Covid than mixing with other commuters. He claimed that car use could decline further in the long run as the pandemic receded to an epidemic and home working was more accepted.

“As more commuters and other travellers return to trains and buses, car travel may decline further,” Cousens said. “Combine this with people’s working patterns changing, including working from home, and I imagine car travel will eventually either stick at 10 per cent below pre-pandemic or potentially even less.” At the height of the first lockdown car travel fell to about 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, while rail passenger numbers tumbled to 4 per cent.

Many employers are struggling to convince their staff to return to their desks. A recent survey by Slack, the messaging service, found that one in six white-collar workers wanted to change jobs because they were being forced to return to the office.

Senior rail sources have warned of possible issues with overcrowding if workers were to swarm back to offices.

Train operators slashed their timetables at the start of the pandemic. While more trains are now operating, the number of services remains well down on two years ago.

“We are certainly not witnessing a ‘surge’ in people heading back to the office,” one insider said.

“It is more of a trickle and in many ways that is a relief at the moment because the number of services was already reduced before Omicron.”

Virtually all rail operators were forced to further cut their timetables last month because of the high number of cases and staff absence.

Overall, services are operating at about 78 per cent of what they were before the pandemic, with many popular intercity and commuter routes hit much harder.

Operators are braced for complaints as passenger numbers recover and questions are raised about their failure to restore a full service.

They point out that the railways can be economically viable only if the service is busy. At present the network is running 17,000 trains a day but with enough passengers to fill about 11,500. Before the pandemic more than 21,000 services were running on an average day.

The railways have been effectively nationalised since the first lockdown, although a £16 billion emergency bailout to keep trains running is starting to be wound down.

Sources said that the Department for Transport had told the rail industry to cut costs by 10 per cent for the financial year starting in April, which will lead to fewer trains on the tracks.

Rail bosses are working on the assumption that on average people will commute just two or three times a week in the new world.

Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “We are running thousands of trains every day with hundreds of thousands of empty seats including at peak times. So if you want to use the train to get back to work, you absolutely can.

“As passengers return to the railway then we will further increase service levels with the reliability that those passengers deserve.”

Cousens said that the fall in car usage should be welcomed by city transport officials, who have been increasingly drawing up plans to hit drivers with “punitive charges and taxes” to force them on to public transport.

He said: “With the new travel trends, the case for measures such as the workplace parking levy tax on staff is considerably weakened. Bristol and Reading have come to see this.”