Back to cars: Public transport expected to take post-pandemic beating

Victoria's public transport will lose 114 million yearly trips post-pandemic, and city roads face worsening congestion as infection-wary commuters desert the network in favour of their cars.

Metro Trains and Yarra Trams are facing unprecedented hits to revenue as other workers take advantage of a new era of work-from-home arrangements.

During the virus' second wave, public transport rides have dwindled to 9 per cent of normal levels.

And even after the pandemic subsides, public transport use overall will recover to just 80 per cent of capacity, or 456 million yearly trips instead of 570 million, according to Monash University research that is the most comprehensive study on travel impacts of the coronavirus done to date.

Near empty Southern Cross Station during what would normally be morning peak hour on Monday April 6, 2020. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The Department of Transport is considering expert warnings that rail will be hardest hit once the virus subsides, with usage to return to just 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Metro's Hong Kong parent company, MTR Corporation, is reporting that a $HK70 million ($12.5 million) loss across its international subsidiaries in the first half of 2020 is "mainly due" to the dramatic dive in patronage and revenue on Melbourne's suburban railway.

The Monash study found one in five people will stop travelling into the CBD, as work-from-home arrangements increase by 75 per cent, significantly reducing the number of white-collar workers coming into the city.

However, the CBD is headed for worsening gridlock, as 9 per cent of the state’s public transport commutes switch to car trips, the survey of more than 2000 people found.

Business leaders are pushing for more parking on the city's fringe as cars become the primary mode of travel, making up 61 per cent of all trips to work — a rise from 57 per cent.

Cycling will rise by 55 per cent, making up 3 per cent of all work-related trips. A dip in off-peak travel will be evened out by a rise in delivery trips.

Public transport trips are expected to fall from 36 per cent to 30 per cent of all work-related trips, with the study commissioned by the Department of Transport warning these trends could take up to seven years to reverse.

"A decline in public transport and a growth in car driving is not a good outcome," lead researcher Professor Graham Currie warned. “We are going to have more and different congestion hot spots in Melbourne."

Professor Currie, the Monash Chair of Public Transport, said there had been a shift in attitudes about public transport, noting the second lockdown had marked a significant turning point. "Crowding and infection fear are new major concerns for users."

The city’s trains are empty during lockdown.Credit:Luis Ascui

To keep services running, the Andrews government gave Metro and Yarra emergency funding relief in June, which is understood to amount to roughly two-thirds of revenue losses on their operations and maintenance contract, which excludes losses on advertising or delays on infrastructure projects.

While the government refused to confirm the amount, sources close to the deal said Metro was lent about $56 million — $8 million a month between June and December.

The state is set to be reimbursed about 66 per cent of the payment once usage returns to 80 per cent capacity and the operator turns a profit.

The cash injection was supposed to last until the end of the year, but operators may ask for another lifeline in the wake of the second lockdown.

"Like every organisation, we’re navigating uncharted waters through this pandemic," Metro's chief executive, Raymond O’Flaherty, said.

Ninety seven cent of Metro's revenue typically went back into operations, maintenance and employee salaries, which had risen to 100 per cent with no current return to shareholders during the pandemic, Mr O’Flaherty said.

But the chief executive confirmed that Metro was "committed to Melbourne for the long term".

Yarra Trams’s new chief executive, Julien Dehornoy, said it was a "challenging" time in transport and the company had "not been immune" to the impacts of the financial shock. The government's funding injection would provide "certainty" to passengers as the network recovered, he said.

A full recovery, however, may be slow.

A month after the first round of stage three restrictions in March, patronage returned to just 40 per cent of normal levels, up from 10 per cent at the height of the lockdown.

In cities such as Vienna, Oslo and Berlin, usage has not exceed 80 per cent capacity months after restrictions eased.

Executive director of the International Association of Public Transport, Michelle Batsas, said rail would continue to be the "backbone" of the city's public transport network, but people would likely shift to shorter, suburban trips which was a trend occurring in Singapore.

On-demand services such as 15-seater buses that could be booked on an app might become more popular, especially in suburbs on the city's fringe, she said.

A Department of Transport spokesman said the government was adding extra train and tram services on the busiest lines to help passengers socially distance.

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