Coronavirus and the great British train wreck


How Covid-19 could lead to a permanent slump in railway passenger numbers.

“Let the train take the strain”, exhorted British Rail’s famous slogan in the 1970s. More than 40 years later we are being urged to do the opposite. The railway operators and the government are united in trying to persuade people not to use the railways, suggesting “only travel by train if you have no other alternative”.

This campaign has been successful in cutting usage, which, even after a slight recovery, stood at around 10 per cent of former levels by mid-June. But its success is now causing consternation within the industry. The concern is that the campaign to deter people temporarily from using trains will cause a permanent slump in passenger numbers and a crisis for the railways.

Michael Holden, a former boss of several train operating companies, told me: “I really worry about the long-term effects of telling people not to use the trains. It is the biggest piece of sabotage the industry has ever seen. I can’t see how the industry can recover from this unless there is a rapid change of policy.”

The railway network was the first major sector to receive government protection during the lockdown. The franchise contracts, through which the private companies operate, were suspended on 23 March and replaced by so-called emergency measures agreements. Companies were no longer required to take the “revenue risk”, meaning the revenue from fares now all goes to government, which in turn pays a management fee to the operators. To keep the railways running, the government has been paying around an extra £700m a month in addition to the annual rail investment subsidy of approximately £4.5bn. Without this additional support, the railway system would have collapsed.

However, advocates of public ownership see this as the wrong sort of nationalisation because it has led to direct industry oversight by the Department for Transport, rather than control through a quasi-independent agency such as British Rail that would have a long-term strategy for the network’s future.

With the rail companies effectively under state control, the industry has been left without a voice to defend its interests. Contrast this with the aviation industry, which has been vocal in putting forward its position to the government, and is now operating with 100 per cent seat occupancy, with no social distancing.

The solution, according to rail managers, is a more relaxed approach to operating under pandemic conditions. This includes the greater use of sanitary and other precautionary methods, together with an end to the “don’t use the trains” mantra, and a recognition of the fact that mass transit and social distancing are incompatible. The train companies have calculated that a one-metre rule would allow 40-45 per cent safe occupancy compared to a maximum of 15 per cent with two metres.

One senior rail manager told me that the government had been “hooked on the two-metre rule when other countries accept that such strict social distancing is impossible to achieve on a mass transit system”. …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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