Posted 20th July 2020 | 1 Comment

Monday essay: a long road ahead

The rule restricting use of public transport to ‘essential journeys’ only was suddenly lifted on 16 July, and new guidelines about returning to work are expected on 1 August. But Sim Harris suggests that this is not, to quote Sir Winston Churchill, even the beginning of the end, although it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.


THE railway industry has worked hard in reaction to the effects of coronavirus. Train services have been reduced, trains and stations have been marked out to indicate social distancing, and the standard of cleaning has been improved to almost hospital standards.

But although revenue quickly dropped to less than 10 per cent of its usual levels after lockdown began in late March the government wanted to keep trains running, even if in many cases their cargo was fresh air. The latest figure we have for financial support of train operators is £3.5 billion, and to put that in perspective the whole industry is usually subsidised by some £4 billion a year.

Certainly the existing franchises could not continue and so they have been all but nationalised, with revenue (such as it is) going to the Department for Transport, which also meets the costs.

But the Prime Minister’s announcement on 16 July has changed the transport landscape, even if it has not quite transformed it yet.

Going for a ride on a train, tram or bus is no longer disapproved of. Passengers no longer have to account for their reasons for travelling. But face coverings continue to be mandatory, and so is social distancing, although the minimum recommended has come down from two metres to ‘one metre plus’. This relaxation has increased capacity, although now comes the long job of changing the seat markings and so on to reflect this.

Many of the pandemic precautions must continue. Much higher standards of cleanliness will still be required. And we cannot possibly say how much longer we have to travel along our road to recovery, before we even get within measurable distance of a ‘new normal’.

There have been some predictions that there will be an indefinite reduction in the number of passengers travelling by train. Some of these pessimists point to surveys which suggest that a substantial proportion of commuters will not return to rail.

Maybe. However, surveys which set out to report what people are going to do can be notoriously misleading. It was the polls in early 2017 which tempted Theresa May to go to the country, with almost disastrous effects on her majority in the House of Commons. Surveys which gather information about what people have done (especially if they have just done it) are much more likely to be close to the mark. Compare the polls leading up to elections with the ‘exit surveys’ which are published at 22.00 on election nights. These ask people how they have just voted, and allowing for a few deliberately false responses, such exit polls tend to be quite reliable.

Another lesson from the past is offered by the number of people who said they would not use the London Underground in the wake of the bombings in 2005 but who, in most cases, actually returned to their old ways sooner or later, although it might have taken some of them a year or two.

Confidence is key, and there is no doubt that many people are still wary of public transport, in spite of face coverings. Even when the outbreaks have subsided still further (and local lockdowns now seem to be the way forward, rather than national rules) it will take time for the market to recover.

In the meantime, the railway is also recovering. The number of trains is expected to increase still further over the next few weeks – Transport for London is already comparatively close to normal, and other city metro, tram and bus networks are also stepping up their levels of service.

So this is only the start of quite a long journey. The road to recovery will be long, and the surface will not always be smooth. But at least the first steps have been taken.

The August print edition of Railnews, RN282, will be published on 30 July. The new edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Melvyn, Canvey Island , Essex

    Given the on going need for some social distancing we don’t want to return to packed trains with standing room only as this could lead to another outbreak in the virus shutting everything down again!

    Perhaps trains will need to be allowed to gradually rebuild their passengers as confidence returns while on services like Inter City booking seats even on turn up and go basis could be implemented to control seat usage .

    I also wonder that given how coach and bus tours companies have lost their business whether they could be used to provide bus services in towns and cities with open top buses running on normal bus routes like the 38 from Victoria through the west end providing extra capacity during reduced capacity social distancing times .

    While for trains is now tge time to replace 2+3 seats with 2+2 seats. removing the middle seat and widening the aisle down the middle.

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