Will there be social distancing on trains after the pandemic?

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If the number of new coronavirus cases decreases as hoped, the government will likely begin to lift elements of the lockdown in a few weeks.

Plans are already underway to deal with an increase in rail passenger numbers, possibly in mid-May, following a pandemic.

Senior industry officials have told the BBC that ministers want some form of social distancing.

But discussions are underway to try to determine what might be possible.

What are the challenges?

A rail operator said that social distancing of any kind would be “extremely difficult” to manage and control. Another said it could reduce the capacity of an individual train by 70 to 90 percent.

At present, almost half of the normal rail services in the UK are running, so essential routes are possible.

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Public Health England is currently in discussions with the Department for Transport and Network Rail on the level of social distancing that might be acceptable.

A source close to the talks said it was “not the land of easy choices.”

Can you limit the number of passengers?

Limiting the number of passengers on each train is a possibility.

This is a realistic option on long distance interurban routes where passengers can make advanced reservations

But it becomes devilishly complicated on busy suburban lines with a large number of stops, especially for getting in and out of major stations in big cities like Manchester or London.

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“Even with 20% of the normal passenger volume, it becomes quite difficult,” said a figure involved in planning.

Currently the total number of passengers is 3% of pre-crisis levels. Many trains run empty.

But how?

One possibility is that, as in Spain and Italy, only people working in specific sectors of the economy may initially be allowed to return to work.

Spreading workers’ hours to stem the rush of passengers during rush hour would help, although the feasibility of this proposal for businesses will need to be explored.

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Reopening schools is also a challenge for railways because children traveling by train usually do so in large groups at specific times of the day.

Likewise, railway bosses believe that if it were possible to stagger the start times for courses in a local area, this would reduce congestion to some extent.

And more trains?

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said his “expectation” of the Westminster government was that public transport “will have to operate with integrated social distancing.”

Burnham called on the government to “manage expectations”.

Increasing the number of rail services on the network requires weeks of planning.

The scale of the challenge is illustrated by the busiest station in the country.

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During the pandemic, 5,000 people travel to London Waterloo every day.

125,000 normally make this trip.

The current level of weekday train services in Britain – half of what is customary – is similar to that of a normal Sunday.

One option being considered is to increase services to Saturday hours before the crisis.

About 85% of weekday services would operate normally on a Saturday.

Are there staff available?

Like many other companies, railway companies are experiencing staff shortages due to the virus.

About 1 in 5 staff members in railway undertakings are on sick leave.

Union support will be essential.

Earlier this week, the RMT union, which represents the train guards, said there was “no chance” of accepting an increase in rail service in mid-May.

Union boss Mick Cash said he “would not accept dangerous directives being sent upstairs from the conference room or cabinet.”

Foreign Minister Dominic Raab downplayed the idea on Wednesday that rail services could increase by mid-May.

Railway bosses acknowledged that no firm direction had been given by the ministers or Public Health England, but several senior figures told the BBC that emergency plans were being drawn up for this scenario.

A spokesperson for the Rail Delivery Group, the organization that represents the railways and Network Rail, said any change to travel guidelines “will be a decision for the government and the railways are considering a range of scenarios.” possible futures ”.

The Department of Transport has stated that changes to rail services “will be subject to England Public Health directives”.

How much does it cost?

The financial aspects of the situation cannot be ignored.

During the pandemic, the government covers the losses suffered by the railway companies.

Revenues evaporated when travel restrictions started and the number of passengers plunged.

While the foreclosure lasts, it costs the government £ 900 million a month to keep the British railways up and running.

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