Covid Scotland: Reductions in car, train and bus travel shows pandemic effect is very much still with us – Alastair Dalton

It has been the year our travel horizons expanded only to shrink again.

From starting 2021 cycling as far as the lockdown travel limit round the Glasgow boundary, I made my first train journey for 15 months in May, followed by taking a bus and taxi, culminating with a visit to our main office in Edinburgh this month after a near two-year absence.

Then it all changed thanks to Omicron, with no prospect of seeing our new premises in George Street for the foreseeable future and a flight to see family postponed.

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Overall, travel may have shown signs of recovery from a year ago, but it’s far from normal.

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Transport Scotland figures showed car traffic in mid-December still down 16 per cent on the same period, pre-pandemic, of 2019, compared to being down 20 per cent a year ago.

Free bus travel was down by 41 per cent (50 per cent in 2020), with rail travel down 53 per cent (80 per cent).

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A novel factor – expected when Covid first struck but being realised only now – of transport staff having to isolate, forcing service cancellations, could further slow recovery.

That will be the focus for Transport Scotland when it takes over ScotRail from Dutch state railways offshoot Abellio in April, exactly 25 years after the operator was last in public hands.

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Boosting passenger numbers will be a key challenge for Transport Scotland after it takes over ScotRail in April (Picture: John Devlin)
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ScotRail has already announced timetable cuts for January in an attempt to run a more reliable service in the face of large-scale staff absences, while previously publicised changes from May will see some 300 fewer trains running a day compared to before the pandemic.

On a more positive note, the completion of the overhaul of Queen Street Station in Glasgow has been transformational. Now all we need is the shops back please.

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Also this year, I enjoyed trying out ScotRail’s innovative and roomy Highland Explorer cycle carriages, which made their debut on the Glasgow-Oban line, and was inspired to see at first hand the regeneration of historic station buildings for a host of new uses at Kilmarnock, and Stow in the Borders.

The hope is that such work across Scotland, encouraged by the tireless Railway Heritage Trust executive director Andy Savage, will continue at similar pace after his retiral in 2022.

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On the buses, electric vehicles were introduced this year by several operators – along with world-first hydrogen double-deckers in Aberdeen – triggered in part by the onset of low-emission zones in the centres of our four largest cities in June 2022, where enforcement of a ban on all but the cleanest-engine vehicles will start a year later in Glasgow and 2024 elsewhere.

Stagecoach’s trial of autonomous buses between Fife and Edinburgh, postponed several times, is now due to start in “early summer” 2022.

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The sector hoping for the biggest boost in 2022 will be aviation, beset by multiple changes to travel restrictions and Covid-testing requirements.

However, Scottish airports are hoping for steps to recovery such as from the planned resumption of US flights from March following the restoration of services to Canada this month after more than a year.

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Finally, the biggest surprise this year was the scrapping of Edinburgh’s cycle hire scheme – triggered by vandalism rather than Covid – whose restoration should be an early priority to provide some good news for 2022.

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