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Shift from road to rail will be as important as ever post-coronavirus

David Shirres

As the lockdown eases, maintaining social distance presents far greater challenges (Credit: Shutterstock)
As the lockdown eases, maintaining social distance presents far greater challenges (Credit: Shutterstock)

As with everything, the coronavirus crisis has had a huge impact on the railway network.

An immediate effect of plummeting passenger numbers after the lockdown was the end of franchising agreements and their replacement by emergency measures agreements. It remains to be seen what this means for the future of the industry. 

For frontline staff, new ways of working included maintaining social distancing, banning whistles, removal of train catering and extra cleaning. Some trains were put into warm storage and new ways of working were devised for train maintenance and production. 

Additional precautions were also required for infrastructure work including the use of masks where two-metre separation is not possible and the provision of additional site accommodation to maintain social distancing. Precautions were also taken to protect the work itself such as mandatory isolation of specialist staff who could not easily be replaced.

There was little disruption to major bank holiday work and the reduced traffic presented opportunities for additional engineering work. Being able to route all traffic via Northampton made it possible to close a 19-mile section of west coast main line for two weeks in May to undertake major work in Kilsby tunnel and elsewhere.

Should trains be empty?

When trains get busier as the lockdown is eased, maintaining social distancing will present far greater challenges as, with the current two-metre rule, trains are full when only 15% of seats are occupied. Normally such trains would be considered empty. While such low occupancy may be feasible in the early recovery phase, it is surely unsustainable in the later phases for which there is an urgent need for the smarter controls referred to in the government’s Covid-19 strategy. 

The two-metre rule is understandable given that, when someone is speaking, coughing or sneezing, saliva droplets can burst from their mouth at speeds of around 50m/s. However it is not a worldwide norm. The World Health Organization recommends a one-metre distance and other countries, Germany for example, have a 1.5-metre rule. (Note: the government's guidance has been updated since this article was published in Professional Engineering Issue 4. Visit the government website for up-to-date guidance.)

Moreover, any assessment of social distancing on trains should consider the risks of running empty trains that passengers cannot board, such as crowding at stations. An assessment of airline-style seating and coach ventilation might enable a reduction in the two-metre distance. 

Compulsory use of face coverings might also allow more passengers on trains. This would do little to protect the wearer from the virus but may prevent anyone with the virus infecting others. Research by the University of Edinburgh suggests this reduces the distance travelled by an exhaled breath by more than 90%. Face covering in trains is obligatory in Spain, France and Germany. It is recommended in Scotland while in England it is compulsory to wear a face covering. 

The passenger railway faces an uncertain future with social distancing likely to be required for many months and followed by a post-Covid dip in passenger demand. However, it is important to consider the long term.

Shift from road to rail

Although it does not have the immediate impact of the coronavirus, climate change is potentially more damaging. The lockdown has also highlighted the benefits of clean air. These issues demonstrate the need for a significant modal shift from road to rail, as is also shown by the Department for Transport’s document Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge. Modal share of travel by distance is 76% by road and 8% by rail (DfT 2016 figures for England). So a 10% shift from road to rail would overwhelm the current network by doubling pre-Covid passenger numbers.

Therefore any post-Covid dip in passenger numbers does not affect the long-term requirement for rail investment, and in particular HS2, which must be part of the plan to tackle future threats.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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