The low train turnout came despite reassurances from rail bosses that passengers would be able to travel safely.
Francis Thomas, the head of corporate affairs at West Midlands Trains, said the company had invested heavily in protective measures such as hand gel and “de-fogging” machines spraying antiviral sanitiser in carriages between journeys.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Thomas added: “We want people to travel with us and we think there is enough space. We reckon we can carry about 40 percent of normal loads before we breach social distancing.
“So as long as people are wearing their face coverings, they can travel with confidence with us today.”
Meanwhile, passengers who ventured out were hit by delays and cancellations on some services, leading to complaints that they were struggling to socially distance on “packed trains”.
One shared a picture on Twitter of a busy carriage with all seats taken after a signal failure near Sittingbourne, in Kent, caused cancellations to Southeastern services. The passenger wrote: “Train packed. Well done Southeastern, you are causing congestion on trains.”
Network Rail, meanwhile, apologised to passengers after a fault caused significant delays to trains in to King’s Cross station.
Anthony Smith, the chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, warned that the industry must “focus on maintaining good performance” in the coming weeks, saying: “Disruption and any crowding from this will be especially unwelcome and has the potential to damage trust in the railway.”