I am at risk of repeating myself. I would love to be writing about something other than the impact on the industry of the Covid crisis and in the next issue I will have a look at what the future will hold. However for now I have no alternative other than to keep warning that the industry is facing an existential crisis because of the policy, advertised on every rail company website, of advising people not to use the trains..
The continued messaging of ‘don’t use the railways’ is ridiculous at many levels, not least that the website message of ‘Only travel by train if you have no other alternative’ is an oxy-moron. First, it is totally unnecessary. Usage is currently around 7-8 per cent of normal numbers. It is quite possible for the railways to absorb considerably more than that even with 2 metres social distancing – yes, a few people might have to walk past each other but the science is now pretty clear that to catch the disease it is probably necessary to have at least a 15 minute conversation relatively close up. The risk on an underused or even relatively busy railways is minimal. Proof of this is that the R-rate – the now famous estimate of the rate of transference – is low in London where there is the most public transport and the highest proportion of people still using it.
Secondly, the government was very slow to mandate masks, which have been shown to be useful in reducing the spread of the disease. Yes, there are doubts about how effective they are but the science on the fact that they are helpful is pretty clear. Moreover, they represent a reassuring measure which is important in building public confidence.
Which brings me to the third point. The continuous suggestion that travelling on the railways should be avoided because of the risks is denting public confidence in the industry. These bleak messages of fear will leave a lasting impression. They are the nuclear bombs of public relations when much less potent weapons should have been used. According to one rail insider, ‘I can understand the railways telling people to be cautious but not to try to stop them using trains entirely’.
Fourthly, how does this fit into a supposedly green agenda where there is recognition that air pollution was a contributory cause of the high death rates of people living in the inner cities. On the one hand the government has been encouraging cycling and walking, pouring money into local authority schemes for cycle paths and walking routes, and yet is promoting a policy that is pushing people into using their cars. The insider, who is very senior in the industry, continued: ‘I am tearing my hair out about the lack of a coherent strategy. One minute they are telling us to do something and the next moment it is the opposite. They have no idea of how to deal with this and the damage seems irreparable.’
Indeed. My earlier warnings, both in Rail and in a piece I wrote for The Times (available free on my website) have not fallen on deaf ears. There are many people – I suspect most – in the industry who recognise that telling people not to use their trains will cause lasting damage but they are silenced publicly because they are now taking the government’s shilling. So it is not their fault that they are complicit but this episode does demonstrate that the railways are ever vulnerable to government whim. And they are delighted that I am articulating what they can’t say.
But how are the railways ever going to get out of this? The impossibility of expecting the railways to require social distancing while performing its service to the public is well demonstrated by what is already happening on C2C. There some 30 per cent extra trains have been deployed at peak times but already, by early June, numbers of users were so high that social distancing at 2 metres was proving impossible.
More than a month ago, Boris Johnson mentioned that there was consideration of reducing 2 metres to 1, and industry bosses were told that this was being considered by SAGE, the scientific committee advising the government on the pandemic. A study carried out by the Rail Delivery Group found that numbers able to use the network could increase from 10-15 per cent under 2 metres to treble that, up to 45 per cent, with 1 metre. Yet, despite front page stories in the Daily Mail supporting the change, the government has not, at the time of writing (June 7) made any change. An assessment of the potential impact suggests that with people wearing masks, there would be a 10 per cent greater chance of catching the illness at 1 metre rather than 2.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the people around Boris Johnson thought the railways would be one of the key industries pulling us out of the resulting economic downturn. But he and his entourage came up against the inflexibility of railway operation: as Rail readers well know, it is nigh-on impossible to speedily increase the number of trains because of the long training period needed for drivers, the lack of spare capacity on the tracks and of rolling stock and the onerous safety requirements. There was even consideration of bringing the new £17 billion Crossrail route under London into use early given that the tunnel and the tracks are already completed until it was pointed out that safety concerns could not be ignored and that there was still much testing to be done.
Increasing the social distance would be a start, but it is still difficult to see how the railways are going to emerge. Let’s assume there will not be a vaccine found for a couple of years, a pretty realistic prediction. Is anyone in the industry or government seriously suggesting that we could have 2m or even 1m social distancing for that long? At the end of the day, we have to be brave and accept that social distancing is incompatible with mass transit.
Rail managers have a responsibility here to push government in the right direction. They need to point to France where already the railways are preparing to accept 100 per cent bookings on TGV services with everyone wearing mask and a host of sanitary measures. Or to Austria where people are told that they take public transport at their own risk which, remember, is very low for people of working age who do not have underlying health conditions.
If one thing has been learnt from this pandemic, it is the need for rail to have a united and public voice. The Rail Delivery Group cannot perform that function because its members are too concerned about alienating government and it has never seen public lobbying as part of its role. Network Rail has, under Andrew Haines, found something of a voice but it, too, is hamstrung because it is not sufficiently distant from government in the way that British Rail was. If there had been a national voice, then a more sensible raft of measures would have been introduced, rather than the blanket ‘keep off the railways’. When the new structure, which I will discuss in the next issue (do send me your ideas), emerges, it must include a national rail organisation that is independent of government with a board who are not afraid of standing up to it. That will be particularly vital in the long recovery period from this crisis.
Top of the absurdity league
My theme in these columns over the past few weeks has been based in the notion that it is simply impossible to have an effective railway if social distancing has to be maintained. In a recent briefing to journalists Andrew Haines, the boss of Network Rail, put it succinctly. He said you can’t have ‘a maximum number of trains, maximum number of passengers and maximum social distancing. You can have two of those but not all three’.
Mr Haines, therefore, gets it. However, I was shocked when I heard that Mark Thurston, the boss of HS2, recently said that the stations and trains may have to be redesigned to accommodate a world with coronavirus. He told New Civil Engineer ‘We’ve clearly got designs thus far that are based on pre-coronavirus norms. How we adjust those over time, in fact if we need to adjust them, only time will tell. The likelihood is, is that the world will never be the same again and we have to figure out what we want to leave behind.’
He went on to say: ‘From a design point of view we need to look at what that means in terms of density of people as well, both on trains and in stations’. This is wrong in so many ways. We have to assume that the world will return to something like normality. Of course there will be a long term impact but essentially human beings are social animals, depend on each other and with a fundamental instinct to interact. Social distancing cannot become a permanent concept. Life would simply be intolerable.
The idea that you could have a ‘socially-distanced’ high speed network is just a non- starter. If a high speed train cannot accommodate a full load of people, then the whole railway is simply not viable. End of, Mr Thurston. Don’t even think about it. The whole idea is absurd and undermines the whole basis of the project.
The same goes for Bombardier which is apparently looking at designing the interior of a carriage that can accommodate social distancing. The design would involve partitions, side-visors, and less seating. Again, my advice is don’t go there. By the time these trains would be fitted out with all that equipment, it will hopefully be redundant.