Monday essay: Keeping your distance

There has to be social distancing on trains, writes Sim Harris. Neither they nor the wider railway system were designed to allow for it indefinitely, but there could be some gleams of hope as well.

THE passenger railway industry has an unusual target at the moment – to keep people off trains.

Not since the Second World War have people been actively discouraged from travelling by rail, and while train companies tackle the challenge as best they can, everyone knows that the railway was not designed for social distancing.

Pictures from the distant past show rich Victorians managing it, more or less, in a few lavish ‘club cars’, which were given soft chairs and sofas and generous amounts of floor space between them. But this kind of rolling stock was intended for the favoured few, not many thousands of people trying to get to work. The commuters of the nineteenth century tended to be crammed into austere, wooden-seated third class carriages. No social distancing for them, and so any infections would have had an easy time spreading to new victims.

We know that Covid-19 is also infectious, and it has been decided that a two-metre distance between people is prudent. It might be prudent, but it doesn’t happen naturally on a crowded train.

Instead, at least 80 per cent of the interior must be declared ‘out of use’. Estimates of capacity after that mostly vary between 10 and 20 per cent, so let’s compromise on 15 per cent.

If that is realistic, between six and seven trains must be provided to carry the same number of people as a single train could manage before the pandemic.

That, of course, doesn’t work. Operators do not have six times the usual number of trains available or the staff to run them, and even if they did Network Rail does not have six times the number of paths (or platforms).

The network was already struggling to cope with demand in congested areas before the present emergency, particularly in London and the South East but also around some of the large provincial cities, such as Manchester or Leeds.

That demand has now been reduced dramatically, but today (Monday) marks the beginning of a return to normality – we hope. As Sir Winston Churchill famously said: ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

There are so many predictions of what might happen next that you can please yourself which one appeals most. At one end are the prophets of doom who almost gleefully predict that working from home has come to stay, and that railway demand will remain drastically lower, replaced to a large extent by teleconferencing and emails.

At the other extreme, brighter-hearted souls claim that this will pass, and that once it is possible to move around in public without fear (or a face mask) the situation will more or less adjust itself.

We cannot know who is right, but the prophets of doom may want to note that teleconferencing and emails have been available for many years now, and they seem to have made little difference to travel patterns. History is also littered with predictions about new technology which have often been wide of the mark. In the 1920s, it was claimed that the new wireless would end the need for reading and books (it didn’t), or that television would kill off the radio (it changed the demand, so that no longer did 20 million people around the nation tune in to The Archers, but even so radio is still alive and well – as are The Archers). On the other hand, the existing way of life is not always completely secure: television did deal a savage, although not fatal, blow to the cinema from the later 1950s, and incidentally to the use of public transport in the evenings as well.

However, the railway is unusual in that it would like demand to slacken in the rush hours, because coping with the extreme peaks is an expensive business. ‘Flatter’ and less extreme rush hours would actually yield dividends, and staggered working hours (often promoted more or less fruitlessly in times gone by) could really be achieved on a wider scale now, along with part-time commuting rather than five days every week.

For the moment, the message must still be ‘is your journey really necessary?’, while train operators tape most of their seats out of use and, in some cases, demand advance bookings, although restrictions like this will hardly be sustainable indefinitely.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps wrote in the The Times today that ‘amid the tragedy of the past months we’ve achieved some extraordinary things. We’ve built hospitals, moved public services and large parts of the economy online and found new ways of working. I’m determined that the transport system also benefits from this newfound capacity to respond at pace.

‘We must ask ourselves, if we can achieve these feats in such a short time, why does constructing a road still take up to 20 years and why are we still using paper train tickets? We must also seize the enormous heath, social and environmental opportunities that come from the huge increase in cycling and walking in recent weeks.

‘To that end, my department has announced a series of multibillion-pound transport investments … [which] will help support the transport system through the coronavirus crisis. But it’s my hope that over the months and years ahead they will help us build a transport system that serves passengers across the country even better.

‘Britain’s recovery will be a gradual process. If we continue to work together, we will not only combat this dreadful disease, but we will succeed in creating a better, greener and more resilient transport network for the nation.’

If the future railway can adapt and improve at even half the speed of building a Nightingale Hospital, then we could stand to benefit from the present emergency after all.

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