Figures recently published by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), estimating station usage, show that “entries and exits” at the city centre interchange dropped from 4.9m in 2019-20 to just 1.1m in the 12 months to March 2021, a fall of 77 percent.
The latter timeframe began just a week after the first national lockdown and encompassed two others, during which people were told to work from home if they were able.
There were similar slides in passenger numbers at smaller stations in Central Lancashire, including Chorley and Leyland, while the commuter-heavy Buckshaw Parkway saw an even steeper decline of 83 percent.
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The annual tally at Salwick in Fylde - just over five miles from Preston - dropped into three figures, standing at just 351 over the course of 2020/21. It was one of six Lancashire stations with journey numbers in the hundreds during that period, up from just one a year earlier.
The least-used station in Lancashire remained Hoscar in West Lancashire, with just 194 entries and exits throughout 2020/21. The biggest fall in numbers came at Wennington station in Lancaster, where they collapsed by 92 percent, while the place they held up best was Blackpool Pleasure Beech, where the drop was 62 percent.
Across Lancashire as a whole, there was a 75 percent drop in the number of entries and exits at the county's 58 stations - down from 19.9m in 2019/20 to 4.9m the following year.
However, new statistics issued by Transport for the North (TfN) show that the North of England is currently outperforming the rest of the country when it comes to getting back on board trains.
As of mid-December, the two main train operating companies in the region - Northern and TransPennine Express - were registering passenger numbers of 70 and 72 percent of pre-Covid levels respectively. That compared to just 65 percent nationally.
Northern reported that, up until just over a fortnight ago, demand for some periods was at 85 percent of the pre-Covid norm, while TransPennine Express said its leisure services had been operating at 89 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
TfN said that business and commuter figures have "proved more sluggish in terms of the return to rail, dragging the overall averages down".
The ORR also released national figures for the first quarter of 2021/22 demonstrating a bounce back in train travel, with 182 million rail passenger journeys made in Great Britain in that three-month period - more than five times the number embarked upon a year earlier. However, that is still just 41 percent of the level in the equivalent quarter in 2019-20.
A Lancashire breakdown for 2021/22 will only be released when full-year figures are published next November.
However, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, Charlie Edwards, told the Post that passenger numbers “have recovered well in Lancashire, where people have been taking day trips and short vacations”.
He added: “We are hoping to see a greater shift to train travel this year, as there will still be uncertainty [over] foreign holidays.
“We want to design a railway network that reflects where people actually want to go and at times when they want. We have called on the operators to increase evening and weekend services, as more people use rail for leisure and as a more environmentally friendly model of travel in general,” said County Cllr Edwards, who also represents Lancashire on the Transport for the North (TfN) board.
Back in September, TfN’s strategic rail director, David Hoggarth, said that less crowded services post-pandemic could make commuting by train more appealing.
However, commenting on the latest Lancashire stats, the county council's cabinet member for economic development and growth, Aidy Riggott, said that travel trends may have changed permanently.
“Clearly, the latest numbers released by the Office for Road and Rail are a reflection of the changes in working and commuting patterns that the pandemic has had on many sectors of the economy.
“Whilst it is perhaps unrealistic to expect a full return to the levels seen pre-pandemic due to the changes that companies and individuals have made during this period, I do anticipate that as the economy recovers and grows, new opportunities will arise that drive new and different commuting patterns that keep rail numbers high across Lancashire.”
Commenting on the figures released by TfN, the organisation's Rail North Committee Chair, Cllr Liam Robinson - a member of Liverpool City Council - said that they showed that the North is "leading the charge on the return to rail - and the government needs to recognise that now is the time to invest".
He added: “With a bounce-back that is around 10 per cent stronger than other parts of the country, we shouldn’t now be facing the kind of resource cuts that the government is intimating. Now is the time to support the rail sector in the North.
“We need more funding for the North of England’s railway – not less. If you want to level up or tackle the climate emergency, it is only made harder if you are cutting investment in the rail network.
“There is also a real concern that this reduced December 21 timetable for the North may be seen, by the government, as the new baseline for timetable planning going forward. But this timetable is a compromise needed to run a railway during a pandemic. It should not be a new normal.
“We want TfN to have influence over what new timetables will look like and to be equal partners in determining what services will look like in the future. This will be a measure of if this government is serious about devolution in the North.”
In response, a spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “We’re spending £96bn – the biggest ever such investment – to boost our rail network and level up the entire country. The majority of this will be focussed on bringing opportunity and prosperity to the Midlands and the North of England, moving the focus away from London and the South East.
“Through the Rail North Partnership, timetable proposals are designed in collaboration with Northern leaders and the industry and are focused on delivering more punctual and reliable rail services across the North and providing sufficient capacity to meet current passenger demand. Our Plan for Rail is clear about our commitment to putting the priorities of passengers first.”
STATION JOURNEY NUMBERS (2019/20 v 2020/21)
Adlington - 134,180 >>> 29,544 (down 78%)
Bamber Bridge - 77,266 >>> 20,844 (down 73%)
Buckshaw Parkway - 455,016 >>> 74,406 (down 83%)
Chorley - 698,696 >>> 159,614 (down 77%)
Croston - 47,318 >>> 8,346 (down 82%)
Euxton Balshaw Lane - 77,736 >>> 12,752 (down 84%)
Leyland - 400,540 >>> 95,220 (down 76%)
Lostock Hall - 38,602 >>> 9,074 (down 77%)
Preston - 4,936,870 >>> 1,155,972 (down 77%)
Ansdell and Fairhaven - 42,386 >>> 9,476 (down 78%)
Blackpool North - 1,791,822 >>> 534,898 (down 70%)
Blackpool Pleasure Beach - 126,928 >>> 47,680 (down 62%)
Blackpool South - 100,488 >>> 30,040 (down 70%)
Kirkham and Wesham - 307,970 >>> 83,240 (down 73%)
Layton - 65,388 >>> 22,536 (down 66%)
Lytham - 111,144 >>>22,620 (down 80%)
Moss Side - 3,692 >>> 482 (down 87%)
Poulton-le-Fylde - 547,252 >>>105,762 (down 81%)
Salwick - 1,670 >>> 352 (down 79%)
Squires Gate - 23,964 >>> 7,988 (down 67%)
St. Annes-On-The Sea - 138,144 >>> 34,144 (down 75%)
Appley Bridge - 226,782 >>> 39,006 (down 83%)
Aughton Park - 218,496 >>> 37,232 (down 83%)
Bescar Lane - 2,364 >>> 572 (down 76%)
Burscough Bridge - 217,920 >>> 51,210 (down 77%)
Burscough Junction - 47,908 >>> 11,590 (down 76%)
Hoscar - 956 >>> 194 (down 80%)
New Lane - 1,946 >>> 612 (down 69%)
Ormskirk - 2,409,296 >>> 549,410 (down 77%)
Parbold - 132,660 >>> 30,478 (down 77%)
Rufford - 21,836 >>> 4,144 (down 81%)
Town Green - 435,124 >>> 101,734 (down 77%)
Upholland - 32,250 >>> 9,596 (down 70%)
Bare Lane - 136,968 >>> 50,502 (down 63%)
Carnforth - 189,000 >>> 51,772 (down 73%)
Heysham Port - 11,450 >>> 1,130 (down 90%)
Lancaster - 2,193,066 >>> 521,432 (down 76%)
Morecambe - 207,976 >>> 44,778 (down 78%)
Silverdale - 50,722 >>> 16,202 (down 68%)
Wennington - 5,398 >>> 430 (down 92%)
Blackburn - 1,323,216 >>> 393,174 (down 70%)
Brierfield - 37,688 >>> 8,976 (down 76%)
Burnley Barracks - 41,128 >>> 11,130 (down 73%)
Burnley Central - 102,278 >>> 28,804 (down 72%)
Burnley Manchester Road - 482,736 >>> 99,694 (down 79%)
Cherry Tree - 41,128 >>> 11,130 (down 73%)
Clitheroe - 305,258 >>> 93,220 (down 69%)
Colne - 81,126 >>> 21,090 (down 74%)
Darwen - 351,974 >>> 86,422 (down 75%)
Entwistle - 15,578 >>> 5,748 (down 63%)
Hapton - 15,110 >>> 4,756 (down 69%)
Langho - 45,706 >>> 13,634 (down 70%)
Mill Hill - 72,962 >>> 23,692 (down 68%)
Nelson - 18,388 >>> 3,688 (down 80%)
Pleasington - 10,844 >>> 2,772 (down 74%)
Ramsgreave and Wilpshire - 111,452 >>> 37,484 (down 66%)
Rose Grove - 73,584 >>> 18,534 (down 75%)
Whalley - 86,134 >>> 20,146 (down 77%)
Source: ORR estimates from ticket sales