Saturdays are now ScotRail’s busiest day of the week as leisure travellers outstrip commuters in returning to the railways, The Scotsman has learned.
A similar pattern has been reported by other train companies, with one industry chief comparing the trend to the popularity of summer Saturday rail travel in the 1950s.
It comes as many office staff continue to work from home or shun public transport.
Transport Scotland rail director Bill Reeve told the UK Rail Summit: “I do not believe commuting will ever come back the way it used to be.”
ScotRail’s passenger numbers remain 70 per cent down on a year ago even though it is now running more than nine in ten of its usual trains.
Peak hour commuting has fallen by about 80 per cent.
A ScotRail spokesman said: “The pandemic has had a significant impact, including who travels with us and when.
“Our busiest day of the week is now Saturday, which is a shift from before lockdown.
“We are working hard to see what changes we will need to make over the long-term to meet the changing expectations of our customers.”
Transport secretary Michael Matheson yesterday announced that emergency funding for ScotRail to cover lost revenue during the pandemic, which has been provided since April, would be extended to January.
Some £103.5 million will be provided to ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper, depending on passenger numbers. But Mr Reeve warned the online conference that current support levels were not affordable.
Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, told the meeting organised by Transport Times: “Leisure travel has returned quicker than work travel.
“We might be going back to the 1950s peak summer Saturdays rather than the normal peak hours.”
TransPennine Express (TPX), which operates trains between northern England and Edinburgh and Glasgow, reported a similar experience to ScotRail.
Steve Montgomery, UK rail managing director of FirstGroup, which runs TPX and several other train operators, told the meeting: “[TPX] has recovered the most, at 33-34 per cent of normal, but predominantly leisure travel. There are significant loadings at weekends.”
Mr Montgomery, who also runs Glasgow-London operator Avanti West Coast, said: “We are not seeing commuting coming back in any of our businesses.” He was “reasonably confident” about the leisure market, but said people were worried about commuting and returning to offices.