It is difficult to overstate the impact that measures to control Covid-19 have had on rail, bus and coach travel. Government orders led passenger numbers to fall by over 90% on some services, and rail operators were quickly brought under emergency measures to prevent collapse. But shops, pubs and beaches have reopened. Can we get back on the train now?
FoSBR’s role is to “campaign for better, more inclusive rail services as part of an integrated public transport network for Bristol, Bath and the West of England“, yet we were unable travel by train ourselves, let alone encourage others to do so.
But restrictions have progressively relaxed since March, and we can now travel for non-essential journeys. Government advice for England is:
- travel at off-peak times
- use quieter stations and stops – get off a stop early if it’s less busy
- keep changes to a minimum, for example, between bus and train
- walk for more of your journey, for example the first or last mile
- book your tickets online in advance or pay by contactless
…and of course you must wear a face mask.
These are tentative steps in the direction of the ‘new normal’, but the message is clear: it is now OK to travel by train.
Making the case for rail
Since lockdown, FoSBR has continued to argue for investing in rail. Covid-19 has hit a number of industries hard, and no-one knows for sure how it will effect people’s travel habits in the medium and long term. But the case for rail – for cleaner air, reduced carbon emissions and better towns and cities – remains strong.
Against this background there are some worrying trends. There is little incentive for rail operators to encourage people back onto trains, because the government is paying them to operate trains regardless of how many passengers they carry. Meanwhile airlines are courting passengers using phrases such as “prepare to fly with confidence”, and the government has actively encouraged people use that most damaging of all modes of transport, the private motor car.
We’ve also heard that the business case for some rail investments has been challenged because the assumed benefits on which they are based may have changed. This is Catch-22: tell people to stop using trains, and then stop providing them because so few people use them!
This is no time for rail campaigners to back down or lose their nerve. When schools reopen in September, it is likely that traffic congestion will return to pre-Covid-19 levels – or worse. Particulates (thought to be a major factor in areas worst-effected by Covid-19) will rise and greenhouse gas emissions may quickly approach previous levels.
FoSBR are reassured to hear that WECA, the local transport authority, hasn’t wavered in its support for public transport, and has pledged that clean growth is an integral part of the region’s recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.
We are committed to continuing support for buses and trains. We know that if we provide good bus and train services, more and more people will take those up and have the confidence to leave their cars at home.Tim Bowles, Mayor of the West of England
Rail infrastructure takes a long time to deliver. It seems likely that by the time MetroWest services to Portishead and Henbury are delivered, passenger numbers will have started rising again. It would be a tragedy if we were to let these opportunities slip through our fingers now.