As NSW swings back into action with the lifting of lockdown rules, the number of people hopping on trains, buses, light rail and ferries has surged.
As NSW swings back into action with the lifting of lockdown rules, the number of people hopping on trains, buses, light rail and ferries has surged.

Public transport fears as train and bus use spikes

New data shows NSW residents are venturing onto public transport in growing numbers as the state moves out of lockdown, sparking concerns about how the system will cope in the future.

It comes as Sydney's busiest train, bus, light rail and ferry services for the month of May are revealed.

Opal card usage data from Transport for NSW shows the number of people boarding bus, train, light rail and ferry services across Sydney spiked last month as Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the first tranche of lockdown reforms.

The data seen by The Daily Telegraph shows public transport use doubled on some services as kids returned to school and restaurants reopened last month. This is despite a 32-person limit on train carriages and 12-person limit on buses being enforced.

With authorities warning peak services are already at capacity due to strict social distancing requirements, there are now concerns about how the system will cope once lockdowns are fully lifted in July.

Train use alone rose more than 52 per cent in May compared to the month prior with than 9 million people boarding NSW Trainlink and Sydney Train services as confidence in the flattening of the curve grew.

In terms of individual services, the T4 Eastern Suburbs Illawarra Line was by far the busiest train line in May, with 1,832,000 trips undertaken, followed by the T1 Western Line at 1,391,000 and T1 North Shore Line with 1,067,000.

Meanwhile, the Olympic Park line took the biggest hit from COVID-19, becoming the least used train line in the state, with just 15,000 trips, even less than the Southern Highlands Line, which had 22,000 commuters.

As commuters flock back to transport in growing numbers, there are concerns about how capacity limits will be enforced.
As commuters flock back to transport in growing numbers, there are concerns about how capacity limits will be enforced.

The overall optimism about the flattening of the curve was also felt in the use of the state's buses, with 7.7 million passengers logging their trips with Opal, an increase of 52 per cent on April.

The most used bus services for May were the CBD and Eastern Suburbs services, followed by the Inner West, Strathfield and Burwood region and the North Shore, Chatswood and Epping bus services.

Overall bus usage across Sydney jumped 52 per cent on April levels. Picture: Getty
Overall bus usage across Sydney jumped 52 per cent on April levels. Picture: Getty

 

Stickers have been plastered on public transport to mark safe social distancing, but there are concerns the system may not cope if demand continues to rise. Picture: Jeremy Piper
Stickers have been plastered on public transport to mark safe social distancing, but there are concerns the system may not cope if demand continues to rise. Picture: Jeremy Piper

Sydney's famous ferry service also welcomed thousands of commuters, with 203,000 people boarding their services - a more than 120 per cent increase on April.

The popular F1 Manly service had the most commuters, followed by the F4 Cross Harbour service and the F3 Parramatta River.

Light rail usage across the Sydney and Newcastle services also surged - a whopping 90 per cent jump since April, with 443,000 people tapping their cards on the service.

The Sydney Metro was a favourite for commuters with almost half a million trips, followed by the L1 Dulwich Hill line which had 146,605 trips, followed by the L2 Randwick and L3 Kingsford.

Light rail usage saw the biggest increase of all with a 90 per cent jump in patronage. Picture: Getty
Light rail usage saw the biggest increase of all with a 90 per cent jump in patronage. Picture: Getty

The spike in patronage comes as Transport NSW warns many bus, train and ferry services are already at capacity at peak hour and customers are urged to look at alternatives. This is despite 3,300 weekly services being added the network.

"If customers are not already using public transport they are encouraged to use walking and cycling options, particularly for people who live in and around employment centres. "Employers should also keep providing flexible working arrangements," a spokesman said.

Commuters are also being told to travel outside of peak windows and to check the Opal app ahead of time to monitor congestion.

While Opal card use across Sydney's bus, train, light rail and ferry services has increased in recent months, overall use is still down by at least 70 per cent compared to business as usual levels in May last year.

Professor Graham Currie, public transport expert at Monash University said this presents a problem when more people venture outside when lockdowns are lifted in July.

Unless people continue to work from home, most commuters will have "no choice" but to breach social distancing rules on transport, he said.

"To some extent the policy which has been set is unrealistic. It's designed in a way which will make breaking social distancing highly likely," he said.

Transport experts say social distancing on transport could be almost impossible come July Photographer: Adam Yip
Transport experts say social distancing on transport could be almost impossible come July Photographer: Adam Yip

With 60 per cent of commuters in Sydney CBD travelling by public transport, he says the only solution is for most employees to continue to work from home, find another way to get to work or for planners to incentivise non-peak travel.

Another transport expert, Professor David Levinson from the University of Sydney, said the only way to maintain social distancing if demand grows is for the virus to be eradicated - and capacity limits removed.

"If there is no more COVID-19 in NSW, we should not be constrained by social distancing. People concerned can of course wear masks and reduce talking on buses and trains," he said.

The figures come as Peter Khoury, spokesman for the NRMA flags concerns the city's roads could become gridlocked if public transport levels do not return to their pre-COVID levels soon.

He said the reduction in public transport usage has been felt heavily with increased traffic - a problem that could be worsened when lockdowns are fully lifted in July.

"The limits on public transport will be a burden on the road network and we're going to have to carry more of a share until we get back to some normality. That's going to require considerable patience from drivers," he said.

 

Sydney's busiest public transport services by Opal trip (May, 2020)

Train

1. T4 Eastern Suburbs and Illawarra - 1,832,000

2. T1 Western - 1,391,000

3. T1 North Shore - 1,067,000

4. T2 Leppington - 952,000

5. T8 Airport and South - 910,000

6. T3 Bankstown - 789,000

7. T2 Inner West 667,000

8. T9 Northern - 615,000

9. Central Coast Newcastle - 381,000

10. T5 Cuymberland - 223,000

11. Hunter Line 25,000

12. Southern Highlands 22,000

13. T8 Olympic Park 15,000

 

Buses

1. Sydney CBD and Eastern Suburbs - 1, 672,000

2. Inner West and Strathfield, Olympic Park - 1,635,000

3. North Shore, Chatswood and Epping - 839,000

4. Northern Beaches - 821,000

5. Penrith, Mount Druitt and Richmond - 498,000

6. Castle Hill, Blacktown - 510,000

7. Fairfield, Liverpool - 465,000

8. Bankstown - 345,000

9. Glenfield - 161000

10. Terrey Hills - 141,000

11. Campbelltown - 139,000

12. Hornsby, Berwora and Gordon - 96,000

 

Light Rail

1. Sydney Metro - 449,284

2. L1 Dulwich Hill Line - 147,000

3. L2 Randwick - 144,0000

4. L3 Kingsford - 133,000

5. Newcastle Light Rail - 19,652

 

Ferry

1. F1 Manly - 59,599

2. F4 Cross Harbour 53,565

3. F3 Parramatta River 29,916

4. 118 Newcastle - 151,131

5. F6 Mosman Bay - 13,082

6. F8 Cockatoo Island - 10,283

7. F5 Neutral Bay - 9,897

8. F2 Taronga Zoo - 7,992

9. F7 Double Bay - 3,936

 

Originally published as Public transport fears as train, bus use spikes

Train use last month grew 52 per cent compared to the month prior. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Train use last month grew 52 per cent compared to the month prior. Picture: Jonathan Ng