As lockdown rules begin to change people are looking for reassurance about returning to rail, Robert Samson explains how Transport Focus has begun to examine that key issue…

At the beginning of May we started to speak to over 2,000 people about their current travel behaviour and attitudes to travel in future. The initial set of results from the first, benchmark, survey was published on 7 May. We currently intend to track these emerging attitudes and behaviours every week, with the second wave of results published on 14 May. This will help to inform both industry and Government of the emerging and changing behaviours and attitudes to travel.

This tracking survey will be supplemented by more in-depth work with groups of potential transport users – commuters for example. This will also allow us to test out draft communications and scenarios for the return to travel.

Safety concerns

Two themes are already beginning to emerge. The first, not surprisingly, is all about safety and what is being done to make travel as safe as possible. One respondent commented: ‘I think I will be reluctant to use public transport once restrictions are eased because of the close proximity of people on trains or buses. You cannot guarantee you will get any distance between you and other passengers.’

With another saying: ‘I think that they will have to limit the number of people who can use every bus, train carriage etc. People will have to wear masks, and transport companies will have to disinfect daily. I also think that people will be very nervous of using public transport for a while.’

There was strong support for social distancing to be in place, for face coverings to be worn and for hand sanitiser to be available on public transport. It will be incredibly important for governments and industry to reassure people on these issues. The advice must be clear and consistent across the rail network, but it must also be realistic – as much as they might want it, people understand that it will be impossible to give absolute guarantees.

Travel patterns

The second theme concerns future travel patterns. People are saying that post-lockdown they will drive, cycle and walk more rather than use public transport. Younger people in particular will look to active travel options and there is a clear sign that driving will increase across all regions. Coupled with this is an expectation that people will work from home more often in future.

One respondent commented: ‘We will be back to congested roads and because people will be ‘raring to go’ there will also be mayhem, perhaps a few more road traffic accidents.’

With another saying: ‘I’m hoping that more people will walk instead of using the car for short journeys. I also hope that a lot of people currently working from home continue to do so, as it means there is far less traffic and less pollution.’

The emerging safety theme illustrates the need for reassurance. However, people accept that whilst supermarkets are doing all they can to make it safe for shoppers, does anyone think they can eliminate all risks? No one can really promise that transport operators can maintain strict social distancing on every service, every day – something that it hasn’t been possible to do on some services being provided for key workers during the lockdown.

People accept that some routes may be busier than usual due to social distancing measures or changes to previous timetables and that it may be difficult to keep two metres away from other travellers. There may be situations where this is not possible, for example when boarding or alighting, on busier services, busier times of day and when walking through interchanges. People will have to try to face away from other people, and keep the time spent within two metres of others as short as possible.

New normal – new partnership

The emerging safety theme is aligned with the recently published guidance from Westminster on safer travel for passengers which advises the use of face coverings, hand sanitiser and maintaining a two-metre distance where possible.

The second theme relating to future travel patterns also aligns with that government guidance encouraging home working where possible, to avoid using public transport where possible and instead try to walk, cycle, or drive.

Initial results from our survey indicate a correlation between people’s concerns and the recently published guidance.

The rail industry now has to build on this guidance to develop processes and information for passengers so that they are clear about what to expect from their operator as well as what’s expected of them. Building on the guidance is fraught with difficulties. However, our previous insight indicates that passengers require accurate, timely, clear and consistent information to allow them to make informed decisions about what to do.

Ultimately it will require a partnership between government, operator and passenger – with government setting out the principles, operators setting out with crystal clear clarity what they will provide and passengers being therefore clear on how they can help make it work.

Fares reform – an ideal opportunity?

As we grapple with the immediate challenges facing the rail industry and passengers, there is of course a longer-term challenge on the horizon – how to bring people back to rail.

This moment of maximum uncertainty may not seem like the right time to grasp the nettle on reforming the fares system but with less people using the rail network and those who are travelling being advised to purchase tickets online or using contactless, perhaps it’s the opportune time to finally resolve the fares conundrum.

When the immediate public health crisis recedes, there will be an urgent need to make train travel attractive again after months of telling people to avoid it, and reforming the fares system could make rail more attractive.

A start has been made. In 2018 Transport Focus joined the Rail Delivery Group in launching the ‘Easier Fares’ consultation to better understand what passengers want to see from an up-to-date, easier fares and ticketing system. With nearly 20,000 responses this confirmed an overwhelming desire amongst passengers for change. More than eight out of ten wanted the fares system overhauled.

Following this consultation, in 2019 the Rail Delivery Group published its Easier Fares for All proposals. Transport Focus broadly welcomed these. Much was sensible and long overdue, not least the spread of single journey-based pricing to simplify the system and the promise of pay-as-you-go fares with a ‘tap-in tap-out’ system to make rail travel more flexible and better suit the way people want to travel today. These changes look increasingly important as we look hesitantly at the future of travel post Covid-19.

It is not Transport Focus’s role to specify a future fares structure or write the detailed regulations. What we will do is ensure passengers’ views are part of any new system. In our input to the Williams Review we set out the principles that a structure should be tested against to ensure it delivers for passengers. It should offer:

• Affordable flexibility.

• An easier to understand structure.

• Easy ways to buy.

• Greater personalisation.

• A system capable of catering to national  and local needs.

• Consumer protection.

• Consumer confidence and trust.

These core principles hold true, no matter the impact of Covid-19, but it is clear that the need for a fairer fares system is an issue where the current crisis will accelerate the need for change to make rail a positive choice for people once again.

Robert Samson is a Senior Stakeholder Manager (Scotland), Transport Focus. He has been with Transport Focus in a number of roles for twenty years. Prior to joining Transport Focus he worked in the privatised rail freight sector and British Rail. He was a football referee for over 25 years and has served on TSSA Executive Committee.