Rising to the challenge

David Hurdle writes a regular column on transport issues in Just Sheringham magazine – All Aboard! – and here is his latest report on changes which affect all train and bus users right now

Since March, public transport has never seen such a dramatic change in how it operates.

Bus and train operators have certainly risen to the challenge and introduced emergency timetables at very short notice, social distancing, and heavy cleaning of grab rails, door buttons, handles, and ticket gates.

Trains are deep cleaned to keep passengers and staff safe.

There have been more contactless payments, and services maintained for key workers, such as to hospitals. The government has provided emergency funding, allowed very short notice timetable changes and concessionary travel before 9.30am; and the railways have been effectively re-nationalised. Train travel is down dramatically, by 95pc nationally.

A new personalised information service to help train passengers has been launched following a trial – https://www.passenger-connect.com/ – and it tells people about disruption and crowding that may affect their journeys, provides alternatives and helps them stagger their journeys and to maintain social distancing.

The clear message now is not to use public transport if at all possible. Social distancing is essential and using buses and trains obviously makes that difficult given their limited capacity.

There are many questions

If nothing else the pandemic has shown how public transport can respond quickly and flexibly when it needs to. However, the outbreak also raises many questions:

  • If more people work from home, will patronage return to what it was?  
  • What about off-peak travel? Online shopping has been rising for years and has now had a further boost. Given this trend, and more shops closing, will off-peak shopping trips reduce?
  • Some people may have tried alternative ways to travel such as cycling, walking and car sharing. Will this continue or revert?
  • Will people be wary of using public transport?
  • Will less traffic, and so less congestion – and also less cash-handling –speed up services, improving efficiency? Or will more people use cars instead of public transport?

The future

But there are several ‘positives’ such as less air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions, and the industry’s proven ability and flexibility to adapt quickly to new demands. Although the aftermath of the pandemic on public transport services is at present very uncertain, and the future impossible to predict, their environmental role is clear cut. The Department for Transport slipped out a consultation document in March about “Decarbonising Transport, Setting the Challenge”. It could not have arrived at a more timely moment as some “pandemic actions” help the aims of decarbonising transport.

The first sentence of the DfT Plan reads: “Climate change is the most pressing environmental challenge of our time”; and a key point made is that “public transport and active (cycling and walking) travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network”.

Time will tell!  

Meanwhile, we can expect maybe this year, maybe next, a Transport Decarbonisation Plan to follow, also a National Bus Strategy, something I never remember having! Quite simply, many of the drastic measures implemented during the pandemic about travelling less are, in fact, versions of the shifts we will need to make to achieve net zero carbon emissions. We mustn’t forget we have a Climate Change Emergency to cope with as well.

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