Network Rail chair believes public transport can adapt and play a central role in driving the economic recovery

 
Sir Peter Hendy, pictured at an event last year

 
Network Rail chair Sir Peter Hendy has offered an optimistic view of the transport sector’s future, believing that it is capable of responding to changes to travel behaviour that result from the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme last Friday, transport secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the rush hour commute by public transport might not return when the lockdown ends.

“It may well be that in the future companies say actually it’s worked pretty well having some of our staff working from remote locations, why don’t we carry on doing that?” he said. “Actually, why does everybody have to get up and travel during the rush hour at a particular time in the morning?

“There may be different ways to help both in terms of businesses and organisations making those decisions but also to do with the way that government responds to spread the load better.”

Speaking on the Today programme the next day, Hendy, who headed Transport for London for nine and a half years, cited the example of the 2012 Olympic Games in London as evidence that travel patterns can be influenced when transport operators work with government and businesses.

If we need to adopt social distancing then all of public transport will have to do it in a way that makes people feel safe, still makes public transport attractive. That may limit the capacity

He said: “If we need to adopt social distancing then all of public transport will have to do it in a way that makes people feel safe, still makes public transport attractive. That may limit the capacity. On long distance trains and coaches of course we’ve got reservation systems so we can quite easily allocate seats. In urban areas it may well be that actually we can’t generally carry the numbers of people that normally travel because of social distancing.

“But I think even there we as a nation and we as a transport system have got some really good experience because in 2012 for the Olympics we had an excess of demand over supply and we worked with business, Grant [Shapps] referred to working with businesses and we’d have to work with them again, to see if there is an excess of demand over supply then how best to manage it. Whether people should, as he says, travel out of rush hour, stagger the rush hour, some people work at home. And actually, despite all of the scepticism in 2012 we managed that for the whole summer really quite well.”

Hendy was asked whether he could see seats being roped off to prevent people from sitting in close proximity to each other. EasyJet, for example, has said that it will keep the middle seat empty.

“I think the British public, the travelling public, our passengers, our customers are really sensible people and if social distancing is the way that we re-establish our society acting more normally I think people will be very happy to do what’s right because actually it will feel right.

Our real job is to make people feel safe on public transport to make sure that we don’t go back to massive road congestion and … we’re going to have to work together to actually make that achievable

“Our real job is to make people feel safe on public transport to make sure that we don’t go back to massive road congestion and I think, the operators, the railway, business, we’re going to have to work together to actually make that achievable. But I think it is achievable because actually the booking system on trains is the same as it is on aircraft. Trains have got a much greater capacity and I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t be willingly complaint for a system that looks after them but allows them to go where they want.

Hendy dismissed the suggestion that restricting the carrying capacity of trains would inevitably lead to fare increases. “I don’t think it’s got a relevance to fares at the moment,” he said.

Pressed on the issue, he added: “We are in the most extraordinary circumstance of certainly, I’m 67, of my life and actually the reestablishment of more normal business, the reestablishment of people travelling in order to create wealth and jobs and housing, which is the purpose of connectivity, means that actually I suspect that will be a completely secondary consideration to getting people starting to travel to make the journeys which will create economic wealth and keep jobs and housing going.”

Hendy, who joined Network Rail in 2015, also said that the railway was in a “really good position”, with the government having acted to put train operating companies on management contracts and now poised to implement the recommendations of the soon-to-be-published Williams review.

I think it’s going to be very easy to morph the current temporary contracts that train companies are on … into a much better system for passengers in the future

“We are incredibly fortunate in the railway sector that we have a plan which government is signing up to for running the railways better in the future for passengers,” he said. “And I think it’s going to be very easy to morph the current temporary contracts that train companies are on to keep running when there are no passengers into a much better system for passengers in the future.

“I warmly welcome, and everybody else in the railway warmly welcomes the secretary of state’s support for that and the government’s support for it. I think we are in a really good position.

 
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