COVID-19 and Rail Travel
15 May 2020

COVID-19 and Rail Travel

SYSTRA Survey Shows Rise in Technology Use & Fear of COVID could reduce rail’s business & commuter markets, but opportunities remain

Context:- The lockdown has greatly restricted public transport’s use, but how will people react when restrictions are lifted? To help answer this question SYSTRA surveyed 1514 people across the UK to understand current attitudes. Analysis shows that increases in working from home, adoption of video-conferencing and fear of illness could have major impacts for the UK’s rail and bus markets.

Headlines:- Public Transport’s commuting and business markets are likely to be hard hit:

  • Over 20% of the sample predicted they would make fewer trips by public transport after travel restrictions are lifted rising to 27% for those who use rail to commute. In London this proportion rose to over 40%.
    • Of those expecting to reduce their use of public transport almost half (49%) cited concerns over illness; a quarter (24%) said they will work from home more; while other reasons included finding another way of making their journey, switching to different activities not involving travel, and changed personal circumstances.
  • Over two-thirds of respondents (67%) believe virtual meetings will replace some or all business trips

Implications Commuting:- Declines in commuting will be caused by home working and fear of illness (over and above reduced employment caused by economic harm). In the short to medium term commuting declines or time of day switching may be encouraged by authorities, keen to avoid a resurgence of infection. This encouragement may take the form of graduated returns to “normality” perhaps asking employers to continue with home working, to operate with skeleton staff in major city centres, or adopt new working patterns (weekend working, moving away from the traditional “9-5” hours etc.)

  • In the longer term, even a small reduction in peak demand, can lead to significant cost deferrals as capacity can be spread more widely across the day. However, we should be wary as many staff may (as now) like to work Monday to Friday at home, leaving high peaks in mid-week. Surely, if transport planners ruled the world, instructions on new working patterns would become permanent as it could help solve the “peak problem”!
  • We should of course be wary of a surge in car traffic, and the consequent impacts of pollution on our health and environment, so encouraging people back onto rail and bus will be as important as it ever was.

Implications for Business Travel:- Reductions in business travel would primarily be caused by the emergence of video conferencing (over and above issues associated with COVID caused economic slowdowns). This could have a major impact on the finances of long-distance train operators which (like airlines) gain a large share of revenues from business passengers.

Potential Mitigations and Opportunities:- To mitigate fears (prior to vaccine and cure), emerging approaches in South East Asia include mask wearing, temperature checks, and the use of apps demonstrating health status. These may be necessary to restore confidence in the safety of public transport in the UK as well. In the longer run a shift in working time patterns could work to rail’s advantage as it could help flatten the peak and result in more efficient use of our infrastructure. In terms of business travel, pricing and quality of service strategies may be needed to reinforce the advantages of face to face meetings, and the ability to use time productively on rail. New investments such as HS2 can address this, as it creates more capacity on existing lines (especially for commuters), and by specifying a communications system fit for the 21st century. This will support business and leisure travel with superb connectivity, over the internet. The enhanced space, comfort and speed should also further erode the aviation market, bring benefits to the environment and the wider economy.

Conclusions:- Change, of course can be good as well as bad and we should not be afraid of it. The promotion of efficient home working, the encouragement of walking and cycling and the elimination of unnecessary business trips can be good for our environment, our pockets, and our mental and physical health. However, it would be very unfortunate if COVID concerns leads to a significant switching of public transport commuters into long term car use. Forewarned is forearmed, we hope the survey will enable us to start to focus on mitigating the bad and encouraging the good.

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