Grant Shapps threatens to shut public transport after commuters pack on to Tubes and buses

mask on tube train

The government threatened to shut parts of the public transport system today to prevent overcrowding as thousands of commuters returned to work for the first time since the lockdown was imposed.

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said the government would have to “take steps” if too many people attempt to use commuter networks at the same time.

Teams of social-distancing “marshals” were dispatched onto stations and platforms today in an attempt to prevent overcrowding, with claims that carriages may only be able to carry 10 per cent of normal loads.

However, it failed to prevent scenes of commuters being packed into parts of the public transport system, particularly in London where Tube passenger numbers were up by almost 9 per cent this morning compared with last week.

Roads were also busier during the morning rush hour, with rising congestion recorded in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds.

It follows the partial relaxation of the government’s lockdown which was imposed more than seven weeks ago to control the spread of coronavirus. For the first time from today, people who cannot work from home have been told to return to the workplace, while restrictions on outdoor exercise have been lifted and some shops have been allowed to reopen.

The government has told commuters to avoid public transport altogether, recommending that people walk, cycle or use the car.

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Shapps said: “We are asking people to be very sensible and not flood back to public transport. Even with all the trains and buses back to running when they are, there will not be enough space.

“One in ten people will be able to travel without overcrowding. It is very important that we enable enough space on public transport for key workers, people who have no other option.”

Face coverings are recommended but not a legal requirement while government guidelines published yesterday recommended that people should face away from other people on carriages to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

However, there were reports of significant crowding on parts of the public transport network in London today.

According to figures from Transport for London (TfL), journeys on the Tube were up by 8.7 per cent early this morning compared with the same time last week. Crowding was exacerbated by the suspension of services on the busy Victoria line when a commuter fell ill.

Hundreds of people queued “round the block” outside Seven Sisters station in north London. Many people also piled on to Northern, Jubilee and Central line services. One traveller admitted being “nervous” about the lack of social distancing.

Photographs from Canning Town and West Ham in east London, North Acton in the west and Liverpool Street Station in the city show travellers packing onto Tube carriages.

Aslef, the train drivers’ union, said on Twitter said that Tube trains were “packed without social distancing taking place”.

Finn Brennan, the union’s organiser on the London Underground, said: “Packed trains and many people not wearing face coverings. The cowardly refusal of TfL [Transport for London] to insist on facemasks is putting the lives of passengers and staff at risk.”

Heidi Alexander, London’s deputy mayor for transport, said: “At the moment, there are about 230,000 Tube journeys made each day in London compared to nearly 4 million normally; about 6 per cent of normal travel. It’s up a bit compared to last week but not by a lot.”

Buses were also busy. One blogger, Jay Bits, posted footage of crowds of people getting off a bus at Stratford, east London, early this morning.

Meanwhile, data published by the location technology firm TomTom showed that the level of road congestion in London at 8am on Wednesday was 19 per cent, up from 17 per cent a week earlier.

The figures represent the proportion of additional time required for journeys compared with free-flow conditions.

Over the same period, traffic in Manchester rose from 12 to 13 per cent; Birmingham was stable at 11 per cent; Newcastle rose from 11 to 13 per cent and Leeds from 13 to 14 per cent.

Guidance from the government yesterday advised companies to consider closing public transport services altogether if platforms and carriages get too busy or lengthy queues form at stations.

They should “consider the full range of operational responses available”, it said, adding: “Use social media, apps and other digital methods to alert passengers before they leave home, and to help passengers stay away or disperse until there is sufficient capacity available.”

Speaking on Today on BBC Radio 4, Mr Shapps said the government would have to “take steps” if too many people tried to use the network.

“If we see the R number go up again, particularly above one, we will have to take steps,” he said. “We all know what that means; it means going back to staying at home.

“We have got a big team of marshallers going out through Network Rail, Transport for London; we have got the British Transport Police out there, and we are even bringing in volunteers to remind people that we don’t want to see platforms crowded.”

However, many main-line train services into London were quiet this morning.

Marshals wearing high-vis and blue facemasks were stationed at the barriers and at the foot of escalators to remind people to keep their distance. For much of the morning they outnumbered the commuters.