Mind the gaps: will we go back to public transport after Covid? | Rail industry


A year ago, with the first coronavirus lockdown looming, passengers were warned to stay away from public transport. Now many are wondering whether that message can ever be reversed.

City centres in particular have been affected by the switch of huge numbers of office staff to working from home. This development threatens to permanently upend the model that has sustained the private rail system, and the coffers of cities that relied on train fare income.

The taxpayer has so far covered the multibillion-pound shortfall on bus and rail revenues, and last week the government reaffirmed its commitment to more bus services with the publication of a new £3bn strategy. There were also signs that offices are returning to favour, after official figures showed more than half of UK workers travelling to their workplace last week.

But the means by which they get to and from the workplace, – wherever it may be – are changing regardless. Active travel is now a buzzword, with more space given to cycle lanes, and the trials of e-scooters being conducted in cities around Britain may see new forms of mobility play a bigger role. Nonetheless, in most of the UK, the car continues to dominate journeys from A to B.

So, 12 months on from that first Covid-19 lockdown, how have the big forms of transport fared – and will the way we get around ever be the same again?

Trains

Record levels of punctuality during the pandemic underscored that old railway joke: the trains would run fine if it wasn’t for the passengers. Train use dropped to just 5% of pre-Covid numbers during the first lockdown, and only revived to 30-40% in the brief September period when a return to workplaces was encouraged.

Government intervention to suspend franchises, replacing them with emergency contracts, was swift. But the vast subsidy in the emergency contracts – at one point effectively £100 for every passenger journey – was clearly unsustainable.

“Unless there is a policy to get railway use back to the same level as in January 2020, there will be a deficit in funding every year for the imaginable future,” says Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics.

Last month, the prime minister airily told a rail conference (via Zoom) that workers would be returning to the office “in a few short months”. Should his optimism prove again misplaced, the rail system will have big questions to ask. Discussions have largely been kept under wraps until this weekend, when the RMT trade union revealed that Network Rail was considering plans that could threaten thousands of jobs.

The rail industry’s projections are not entirely gloomy. A Network Rail source says: “The five-day office commuter is dead. But our analysis is that Tuesday-to-Thursday will return to nearly full. Once all restrictions are lifted, we will have quite a quick bounceback.”

Cars

In the fine spring weather of 2020’s first lockdown, many urban dwellers noted the silver lining of less traffic and cleaner air. But emptier roads also tempted many drivers to make journeys that had been once slowed by congestion – and making the most of perceived greater safety in being shielded from contact with others during a pandemic.

By summer weekends, private car journeys had quickly grown from a third of normal to exceed pre-pandemic levels. While many outside urban areas are reliant on cars, transport planners are alarmed to see that even in London car use is relatively much higher.

Alex Williams, director of city planning at Transport for London, the capital’s transport authority, says: “If you look at car journeys, we’re on about 85% of the norm. We are worried about this concept of a car-led recovery – it will be a challenge to win our customers back to public transport.”

But most cities’ public transport is more radial than orbital (in and out of the city rather than around it), so for those who now spend more time in the suburbs for work and leisure, options are limited.

Buses

If travel patterns have changed, a public transport network reliant on bus travel could theoretically be reshaped far more quickly – and cheaply – than rail could.

Before Covid, ministers were promising imminent reform. Although the pandemic delayed that £3bn national bus strategy until just last week, the government has underwritten lost fare revenue and contracts to the point that bus firms such as Go-Ahead have still turned a profit.

With many key workers and low-income groups reliant on buses for local journeys, the proportion of bus traffic in the pandemic remained higher than rail – despite fears over transmission, underlined by the high number of deaths of bus drivers and staff at the start of the crisis. Use has risen from 10% in the first lockdown to approaching almost half of normal now, especially since the reopening of schools.

David Brown, chief executive of Go-Ahead Group, which runs about a fifth of English bus services, says the company is seeing a steady return of customers, not least what he terms “vaccinated concessionary travel” – over-60s with bus passes who have had their Covid jab. “We anticipate changing demand, fewer people travelling in the peak … but doesn’t mean there is no demand.”

Brown says he is not worried about the possibility of passengers staying away: “If you want an economy to recover, if you want city centres to survive, you’ve got to provide transport. People are still going to need to get around – and you still want a green recovery, not a car-based one.”

London Underground

If there was one place commuters decided they didn’t want to be with an unknown virus sweeping the globe, it was on the London Underground. Passenger numbers had already dropped while Boris Johnson was still in his shaking-hands phase, and were down by three-quarters before the first lockdown was confirmed. TfL’s Williams admits: “In the early stage of the pandemic there was a lot of messaging from the government and us not to use it – it became a fearful place.”

Numbers plunged to as little as 3% of pre-Covid levels but have recovered to almost a quarter, or 1 million passenger journeys a day. “We need to let people know that this is a controlled environment that is safe, reliable and clean.”

A publicity campaign is ready to go the moment lockdown lifts, he says, to encourage people back. “We’ve got this concept that ‘we’re ready when you are’. We’re hoping to remind people what they have missed about this fantastic city.”

While TfL has invested in active travel, he says the priority is to get people back on the core public transport network. “If you don’t do that, you have a gridlocked city.”

The business plan put to the TfL board, as London tries to negotiate a further settlement from a politically hostile government, projects that tube journeys – a key source of income for TfL – will return to two-thirds of normal over the coming financial year. “But to be perfectly honest,” says Williams, “who knows?”

Walking and cycling

Active travel looked like the big winner at the start of the pandemic, with a boom in cycling and walking: numbers of cyclists at weekends were three times 2019 levels, although numbers have been only modestly higher since then.

Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at Cycling UK, says: “It was great to see the increase in cycling and the increase in ambition from the government last year. The vision was great – but it hasn’t really moved forward as we hoped. We don’t yet have a delivery plan, and we’re not really seeing the investment they promised.”

Some councils have, he says, ignored statutory guidance to rearrange road space, without government response. In two notable cases – Kensington and West Sussex – new cycle lanes have been removed.

The big win, he says, would be to see more people cycling for very short journeys – to school, to a station for their onward commute, or to the shops. But this needs infrastructure for potential new cyclists, particularly families, to feel safe.

Walking became the primary form of exercise during the pandemic, according to Sport England research. Mary Creagh, chief executive of walking charity Living Streets, says: “People have reconnected with walking. You’re tackling mental health, obesity, air pollution, carbon emissions, congestion – making space only for vehicles that really need it.”

Studies of low-traffic neighbourhoods have also shown lower incidences of crime, particularly violent and sexual offences. Creagh says: “In the context of the national debate we’re having about the safety of women, that’s a really important part of building back better.”

But despite the creation of more cycle lanes, and low-traffic neighbourhoods, Dollimore has a sense of opportunity missed: “We’ve never heard a government speaking so positively – but I’m frustrated by the slow progress.”

Creagh remains upbeat that pedestrians, not cars, can be at the centre of traffic debates: “Things that we thought were impossible a year ago can happen in a heartbeat. It shows we can just completely reimagine the system.”

Boarding a train at Waterloo station during last week’s rush hour.
Boarding a train at Waterloo station during last week’s rush hour. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Rush hour in London: ‘I always get a seat and table now’

“More staff than customers at the moment,” says the man at the ticket counter at London Waterloo station. But this is livelier than it was a few weeks ago, he adds.

Welcome to what was, until Covid, Britain’s busiest rail station, handling almost 100,000,000 passengers a year. Up on the balcony, overlooking what was once a teeming concourse, is Network Rail’s head office: but the infrastructure operator’s staff, like most, are working from home.

Soon after 9am on a weekday, only a trickle of passengers are alighting from South Western Railway’s 10- or 12-carriage trains, built to carry 1,000 people – designed with slim ironing-board seats to maximise standing space for a lost world of passengers clamouring to travel into town.

Out at Clapham Junction, an inbound South Western train appears entirely empty. At London Victoria, the sole passenger leaving her carriage on a Southern train from the East Sussex town of Lewes says she has travelled here to work. Right here, at the station, for Southern Rail.

With the next stage of the exit from lockdown only a week or so away, the situation may change fast – possibly a rude awakening for those who have continued to travel. Arriving from the West Sussex town of Horsham on Southern, Jeremy Cockcroft, a chemist at University College London, says he can’t wait for normal working life to return, after giving lectures via Zoom from empty halls. But for someone who lived the bad old days of strikes, overcrowding and delays on the route, commuting through the pandemic has been a pleasure: “I always get a seat and a table now.”

It’s easy to empathise. Returning to the tube now feels a rare treat: trains scrubbed clean, platforms spotless, seats in abundance by mid-morning. In the city centre on the Circle, Victoria and Northern lines, trains are only dotted with passengers, silent behind their masks. At Blackfriars, cleaners lurk at the top of empty escalators, ready to spray should a handrail get touched. It is so clean: the ancient moquette seating of the Bakerloo line’s 1970s trains looks less dusty now, like a pristine themed museum ride. Even the walls are easier on the eye: virtually all remaining adverts are (bar Bitcoin sellers) Transport for London rejoinders on safety and politeness.

But it remains a sad sight. St Pancras, once billed Britain’s best “destination station”, is all but empty, some of its stores closed down for good. The piano donated by Sir Elton John is taped shut; another, once located by the blank Eurostar arrivals board, has vanished. The cross-Channel train service struggles on, staff counting down to the day’s only departure to Paris. A nearby Red Cross poster consoles “You are not alone”. But try telling that, right now, to London’s few commuters.



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