Government’s strong ‘avoid public transport’ message has created the impression that it was ‘fundamentally unsafe’ and will be hard to reverse

Fundamentally unsafe?

Strong warnings to avoid public transport in the UK have created a culture of fear that will be difficult to reverse. This issue was discussed by speakers at last month’s UK Rail Summit, with a number of them drawing on international comparisons.

Andy Byford, Transport for London’s commissioner, noted that metro services in the Far East were not so hard line in terms of social distancing, although he acknowledged that those countries have a very different societal model.

“People are much more used to, and compliant with wearing masks [in those countries],” he told delegates. “But I think there will come a point where I would want to make a call to relax the social distancing somewhat, provided that’s backed by very high levels of mask usage.”

As well as being a major operator of buses and trains in the UK, Go-Ahead Group also operates services in Singapore and Northern Europe. Katy Taylor, Go-Ahead’s group commercial and customer director, has observed significant differences in approaches to public transport during the pandemic. In parts of Northern Europe, for example, all seats on public transport are being used facing in one direction if people are wearing face masks.

Taylor believes that there are opportunities for the UK to look at what other countries are doing, in order to strike the right balance between safety and sustainability.

Network Rail chief executive Andrew Haines said his view was that the risks associated with using public transport may have been overstated in the UK.

There’s an ongoing debate to be had with the government’s scientists about what is the risk on public transport

“There’s an ongoing debate to be had with the government’s scientists about what is the risk on public transport,” he said.

Haines cited a study on high speed Deutsche Bahn services in Germany, where a track and trace equivalent has been in place since the spring. Not a single cause of infection has been traced back to a train journey over the past six months, “a very powerful statement”.

He warned: “One of the things we are going to have to overcome is that even when the government wants people to return to using public transport, because they want to rejuvenate city centres, people have misunderstood the message, and people have thought there was something fundamentally unsafe about public transport … I have seen no evidence to support that thesis.”

To help get people to overcome their fears, Katy Taylor believes that the industry needs to persuade them to “try it once”.
“People who have tried transport once, who’ve gone back on one journey since the lockdown have found it great, have really enjoyed the experience and are really positive about it,” she explained.

Taylor said that influencers, such as politicians, could also help to encourage people by being seen on public transport themselves.
A campaign akin to the government’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative, which encouraged people to return to pubs, cafes and restaurants in August by subsidising their meals, is seen as something that could help get people to return to rail.

A poll of delegates at the UK Rail Summit found that more than three-quarters (76%) think that the government should replicate the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative for restaurants for public transport, with discounted fares to encourage passengers back onto the network.
Taylor agrees. “It’s amazing how much people love a bargain,” she said. “Who would have thought that would be so popular? Restaurants were dead the week before that campaign started.

So I think there’s a real opportunity there to do something across rail … It will just give people that encouragement to try it that once.”

However, she believes that it will be difficult to get people to move on from the ‘avoid public transport’ message that the government came out strongly with at the start of the pandemic.

People are waiting to be told by government that it’s safe

“We can’t under-estimate the impact that that authoritarian voice of government coming out and saying that has had,” she warned. “We see a lot of the customer data says people are waiting, especially people who are in the sort of high fear segment, people are waiting to be told by government that it’s safe.

“I really think there needs to be a change in that messaging from government and just moving away isn’t sufficient … it needs to be a very clear message from government that public transport is safe.”

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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