Most countries in Europe have dropped virtually all Covid-19 restrictions after around 2.5 years since the start of the pandemic. During the worst restrictions, public transport networks remained eerily quiet as public health measures took hold.
Following the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020, stay-at-home orders, border closures and lockdowns swept through Europe almost as quickly as the virus.
Planes were grounded and trains and buses remained parked. But what impact has this had on passenger numbers and – potentially – emissions? While aviation is widely recognized as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions through carbon dioxide, the sector has recently achieved reductions.
Only limited public transport services remained in place to accommodate essential workers and freight services during the pandemic. For example, in Ireland, all public transport has been reduced to 25% capacity.
Those restrictions have set back years of what had been steady and steady growth in air and rail passengers in the European Union, the bloc’s two main forms of public transport. More than a billion passengers boarded planes to transport them between EU member states in 2019. Eurostat data shows this is an increase of around 163.4 million compared to the 2016 figure of approximately 871.6 million.
The extent of the impact of the restrictions on the aviation sector in Europe is evident from the data for 2020. The number of passengers fell to 393.2 million, a drop of 73.2%.
Air passenger figures for 2021 remain partially incomplete, with several EU member states including Malta, Latvia, Cyprus and several others yet to report their figures to Eurostat.
Irish air passenger numbers have also dropped dramatically during the pandemic. Like the rest of the bloc, passenger numbers in Ireland have risen steadily since 2016, when 35.6 million people used the country’s airports.
This figure reached just under 41 million in 2019 before falling to 8.8 million in 2020, a drop of 78% in just 12 months. The total number of air passengers for Ireland in 2021 was 9,132,872, according to data available from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CSO). Although this is a slight increase from the 2020 figure, it is still a 76% decrease from 2019. Dublin Airport handled 90% of the country’s air passengers in 2021.
More recent data from the CSO, from April 2022, shows that more than 1.37 million passengers have arrived in Ireland by air from abroad. Although this is a massive increase from April 2021, when the figure was just 61,400, it is still lower than April 2019, when 1.59 million passengers landed on our shores.
Increasing rail travel is a cornerstone of the EU’s European Green Deal, which plans to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and triple it by 2050.
The amount of fuel burned per air passenger carried fell by 24% between 2005 and 2017, but this drop was offset by a sharp increase in the total number of air trips over the same period. People were stealing 60% more in 2017 than in 2005, according to European Commission data.
At the same time, rail transport across the bloc has become increasingly popular as member states invest in high-speed and cross-border suburban, urban and intercity networks. Carbon dioxide emissions from rail transport have declined across the bloc almost every year between 1995 and 2019 as more of the mainland’s rail lines are electrified. The Dutch rail network is now almost entirely powered by electricity generated from the wind.
Total rail passenger numbers for the EU are not known as several countries, including Belgium and Austria, both of which have extensive rail networks hosting transnational and international services, are keeping passenger numbers confidential and d he other members, namely Cyprus and Malta, have no main railway lines. .
Eurostat data shows that despite this, the majority of members reported an increase in rail passenger numbers in the third quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. Ireland ranked second in this area, with an increase of 42%. This indicates an industry-wide recovery across most of the EU, but numbers were still below 2019 levels.
Recent measures including greater investment in overnight sleeper trains across the continent, in particular Austrian operator ÖBB Night jet service new vehicles and €9 train tickets in Germanymay have contributed to the increased demand for rail services.
The Irish have also turned to train travel. The number of passengers increased by nearly 17% between 2016 with 42.8 million passengers and 2019 with just over 50 million transported. This increase is attributable to the introduction of the 10-minute service frequency on the Capital Dart network as well as to improvement of other long distance services.
Rail passenger numbers here have collapsed to 17.9 million in 2020 due to capacity limits imposed on public transport networks as part of public health measures and large numbers of the workforce working remotely.
Significant declines in 2020 were recorded by all EU member states, but Ireland saw the largest drop of minus 65.2%. It was closely followed by Italy, the epicenter of the virus on the continent in the early days of the pandemic, at minus 60.7%. At the other end of the spectrum, Bulgaria saw the least impact on its rail passenger figures at minus 26.4% in 2020.
France and Germany were the bloc’s biggest contributors to rail passenger performance in 2020, similar to their respective contributions to air passenger figures for that year. France recorded 57.5 billion passenger-kilometres while Germany recorded 56.5 billion passenger-kilometres, both covering 51% of the bloc’s total passenger-kilometres.
Full rail passenger statistics for Ireland have yet to be fully compiled for 2021. However, Irish rail passenger figures have started to show signs of recovery in 2021 with the number of rail journeys down 40 % at pre-Covid levels from week beginning 26th September.
Indications point to a steady increase in the number of passengers returning to both air and rail travel in the EU, with some of these numbers rapidly approaching a return to pre-pandemic levels. However, a first count of the total number of rail passengers in Ireland in 2021 stands at 17,072,961, up from 17,934,000 in 2020. This figure is subject to change later in the year pending further analysis.
In April 2022, CSO data shows Dublin Airport passenger numbers were at 85% of their April 2019 level, while public transport journeys for the month were at 77% of their level. 2019 – an upward trend that is expected to continue.
This article was produced in collaboration with UCD Data Journalism