Can Greater Anglia win back all its travellers after lockdown is finally over?

What is the future for rail services after the lockdown is eased? Picture: NICK STRUGNELL/GREATER AN

What is the future for rail services after the lockdown is eased? Picture: NICK STRUGNELL/GREATER ANGLIA - Credit: Archant

There can be few people whose lives or businesses have not been seriously impacted by the extraordinary – and tragic – times that we are currently living through.

Greater Anglia managing director Jamie Burles. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA

Greater Anglia managing director Jamie Burles. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA - Credit: Archant

And speaking to Greater Anglia managing director Jamie Burles this week, it is clear that public transport operators are facing really challenging issues – both in the present and the future. And so far as future plans are concerned it is almost impossible for them to know now where they are heading.

At present they are running a reduced number of near-empty trains for essential workers only. The 5% of normal passengers travelling cannot come anywhere near covering the costs of running about 60% of the normal train service so the government is picking up the tab.

But that cannot continue indefinitely. Eventually the message will have to change away from “don’t travel unless you’re a key worker.” But what happens then?

In the immediate lockdown-loose scenario more people would be able to travel on a few more trains. But we could not get anywhere near the relaxed method of travel we had before.

If we try to introduce social distancing on trains, how would that work? Trying to remain two metres away from other passengers on a train would be a real challenge. Keeping every other seat empty would still leave passengers less than two metres away from the next person – and every time someone walks through the central aisle they are bound to come withing two metres.

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Then there’s getting on and off. If you’re going to maintain that two-metre gap every time you get on or off a train there will have to be separate doors (or separate times) for people joining or leaving the train. That will all take much longer than we’re used to.

And how will rail companies ensure there aren’t too many people on trains? They’ll probably only be able to carry people who have bought seats in advance and have a named seat on their ticket.

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All of this could make travelling by train quite a complex business – and may leave many people thinking that it would be easier to just jump into the car.

For Mr Burles this is an issue he is aware is somewhere over the horizon. Until we know how the lockdown is going to be eased it is impossible to make detailed plans – but he does have staff looking at possible options for when an easing is signalled.

Longer term, too, there are huge questions about how we will travel and how important that will feature in our lives.

A national survey for transport consultants Systra at the weekend showed that the number of people returning to commuting after the lockdown could fall by between 20% and 40%. There are several reasons for this – some commuters will have found that they can work from home quite easily and don’t need a season ticket while others, particularly those in industries badly hit by the lockdown, may not have jobs to go back to.

Mr Burles concedes that it is unrealistic to think that the current situation will not have some long-term impacts on the way the rail industry operates.

But he remains optimistic about the overall future of rail. The lockdown may have shown people that they can work at home – and may encourage them to do so more in the future – but it has also shown them how much they miss real human contact.

He said: “When this is over, people will want to be able to travel to meet up in person or work together regularly.”

And then there’s the leisure market. If people are going to get back on the train for leisure there are two major criteria the rail companies need to fulfil.

The passengers need to feel safe. They need to be sure that the chap coughing and spluttering on the opposite side of the aisle isn’t going to give them a dread disease.

And they need to feel they can enjoy the journey, that it doesn’t involve too much hassle and take too long to organise. If you’re going on a one-hour journey you don’t want to have to wait about spending 20 minutes getting on and off or ages on a computer booking tickets days in advance.

Returning to a simple way of travel is vital to the rail industry, and indeed to public transport in general, but that is dependent on the success of measures to defeat Covid-19, be they vaccine, contact tracing or even herd immunity.

Until that happens Greater Anglia, and indeed the whole rail industry, will be treading water to some respect – and will be unable to expect to see a return to the year-on-year increase in passenger numbers that we have seen for the last two decades.

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