How can train companies meet the challenge of lost passengers from lockdown?

Only three people were on the train from Norwich to London. Picture: Nathan Long/Greater Anglia

Only three people were on the train from Norwich to London. Picture: Nathan Long/Greater Anglia - Credit: Archant

This week’s pictures showing an empty Intercity train on the line between East Anglia and London has shown just how much the coronavirus crisis has impacted the rail industry.

There are no crowds like this at Liverpool Street Station now. Picture: MAURO MURGIA

There are no crowds like this at Liverpool Street Station now. Picture: MAURO MURGIA - Credit: MAURO MURGIA

The number of trains has been substantially reduced and rail companies have made it clear that people should only travel if they have to as essential workers. The number of people travelling by train in the UK has fallen by almost 95%.

The government is now heavily subsidising rail companies to keep their services operating for the essential workers – and to ensure that the services they run have enough capacity to ensure passengers are not crowded and risk spreading the coronavirus.

That does mean that some trains are running empty or with very few passengers. Greater Anglia conductor Nathan Long took pictures on an empty InterCity train that had three passengers in 12 carriages.

The current situation on the nation’s railways is starting to force companies to re-look at the future of their industry and to try to work out how long it is likely to take to return to “normality.”

Many companies, including Greater Anglia, rely on commuters for a high proportion of their income. They are starting to ask themselves how many of those commuters will return to the trains after the lockdown, how long it will take to get them back, and how many will have found other ways of working?

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There are several scenarios that could see major change: Many commuters have found that they are able to work from home – and for some this will be an attractive option, even after the lockdown has been lifted.

Not having to spend hours every day getting to and from work – and having to pay for a season ticket – will be attractive for some workers even if they would miss working in the same office as their colleagues.

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For many jobs working at home is not an option. People working in retail, leisure and hospitality usually cannot work from home.

But those industries are likely to be among the most heavily impacted by the lockdown. When some do reopen their doors, how many staff will they need, and how many commuters will there be travelling to work?

However quickly the country bounces back after the lockdown, there is likely to be a major impact on the whole rail industry.

Passenger numbers in 2020 will be significantly lower than they have been for many years, franchise models which relied on an ever-increasing number of passengers simply will not deliver the revenue they had expected.

Greater Anglia is particularly affected by this – it is spending £1.4bn on its fleet of new trains. A substantial fall in the number of passengers could cause serious problems.

The government had commissioned a report on the future structure of the rail industry which was due to be published in the spring. That is now sitting on the shelf at the Department for Transport and it is expected that it will be radically reconsidered once the crisis is over. Could a form of renationalisation be on the cards again?

Not all passengers are commuters. How easily will rail companies find it to regain the leisure passengers who also provide a valuable income stream?

Once the restrictions are lifted, how keen will travellers from East Anglia be to head to London for a day out?

How will people regard each other? Will those heading for a day out be prepared to travel in a train full other people – or will they prefer to go in their own private car where they won’t feel nervous every time a stranger on a nearby seat sneezes or coughs?

Rail industry leaders are already grappling with these issues and are already starting to think ahead to try to ensure that they can have a viable future.

The last three decades of rail growth have shown that there is a demand for passenger rail services as more and more people have come to rely on trains for both work and leisure.

It could take many years before so many people are prepared to travel by train as frequently as they have recently – and further government support for the industry over the next few years looks vital if it is to continue to invest in the future.

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