David Hoggarth, strategic rail director of Transport for the North (TfN), told the organisation’s annual conference that anybody returning to the railway for the first time since Covid struck should notice that “something had changed” about their experience.
However, the gathering also heard that recent research shows as many as one in three people do not believe they will ever again feel comfortable travelling on any form of public transport.
Train passenger numbers are back up to 80 percent of pre-Covid levels across the North of England and several operators in the region introduced new or revamped rolling stock either just prior to the pandemic or during the last 18 months.
Mr. Hoggarth said that there was now an opportunity for a “rail renaissance” as part of the recovery from Covid.
Speaking of his own recent train journeys, he told delegates: “It struck me...how much calmer it is compared to the commute before the pandemic. Looking around me, I could see all the new or refurbished trains in a way that just wasn't visible before.
“It’s never really been possible to market the morning peak [in train travel]...because we had old trains [and] lots of crowding problems - and to market that product was quite difficult.
“The product is now different - there is space available in the peak for those people who do commute, but obviously people are travelling at different times,” Mr Hoggath added.
He also explained that there had been a shift in “the mix” of people using train services, with a greater proportion of leisure travellers since Covid restrictions were relaxed.
Train travel for leisure purposes across the North had this summer often exceeded 2019 levels, the conference panel discussion heard.
“[It’s] actually a strength that we have got such a diverse range of passengers across the North.
“We know that [leisure travel is] an untapped area of the market - [and] we know that [it] can be difficult for families, in particular from a price point of view or just from a convenience point of view, when [the train is] competing with a private car,” said Mr. Hoggarth.
However, any rebirth of the railway will have to overcome a reported reluctance amongst a significant proportion of the travelling public to get back on board either trains or buses
Yvonne Fox-Burmby, stakeholder manager at the watchdog, Transport Focus, told the conference that the organisation's research had revealed a third of people “don't feel that they will ever feel comfortable being on public transport again”.
She said that levels of passenger satisfaction with face mask use on bus and train services had fallen since June when coverings were still mandatory - and that there was still “a nervousness” about travel on public transport.
“Face masks and coverings are the key safety measure people are relying on to help them feel safe.
“It’s clear that people are definitely in two camps - we are still at very different stages of returning to normal. You've got people who are double jabbed [and] very happy to get on public transport - and then you’ve got others who are noticing that people aren't wearing face coverings and not social distancing and it's making them really reluctant to get on to buses and trains.
“It will take a long time for people to readjust, it doesn't just happen overnight,” Ms. Fox Burmby said, warning operators not to take their “foot off the gas” when it comes to Covid precautions, because of the need to reassure passengers.
She added that travellers also expected well-ventilated services and had appreciated the additional cleaning measures put in place during the pandemic - but were more understanding of the difficulty of maintaining social distancing as routes became busier. The use of new technology to provide prior warning of crowded services was important in that context, the conference heard.
David Hoggarth noted that survey responses suggested it was those people who had not used public transport recently who were most concerned about the safety measures being deployed on board. He said that from his experience of train travel, face masks were less common on less crowded services.
“Actually it's no different to the sort of experience you get in a bar or a shop - so we shouldn't make public transport...too much of a special case, [because] it is just reflecting what’s happening everywhere in society,” he added.
Andrew Jones MP, co-chair of the Transport Across the North All-Party Parliamentary Group, said that on the London Underground, where masks are still mandatory, compliance is “poor”.
32 percent – will never feel feel completely comfortable using public transport again
47 percent – will not use public transport unless face coverings are required
42 percent – will not use public transport unless social distancing is in place
90 percent – of those who made a train journey in the last seven days felt safe doing so
38 percent - of those who have not made a train journey in the last week would feel safe doing so
22 percent* - of people who made a train journey in the last week did not wear a mask at any point
23 percent* - of people who made a bus journey in the last week did not wear a mask at any point
* excludes London
Source: Transport Focus research of 2,000 people, 10th-12th September