CORONA PANDEMIC Railway travel in a post-COVID-19 world
The COVID-19 pandemic led to dramatic reductions in train passengers, creating an existential crisis for rail operators all over the world. The upheavals caused by the pandemic, however, go far beyond passenger numbers and will have consequences for the rail industry for years to come.
When the UK entered its first lockdown in March 2020 to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the number of passengers on national railways plummeted, with traffic at London’s usually busy Waterloo station eventually going down by 95 %. Similar developments were observed in many countries early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. In the US, rail carrier Amtrak had to abandon its projected profits for 2020 when faced with its own 95 % drop in ridership from a record 32.5 million passengers in the previous year. Germany’s Deutsche Bahn reported that its trains were only operating at a 25 % capacity over the Christmas holidays while the company had expected about 40 %, which was already significantly lower than the pre-COVID 70 to 100 % holiday capacity.
Hygiene standards and technological innovation
In a survey conducted by the international railway association UIC among rail operators worldwide, 32 % of respondents believed that the pandemic would have a lasting impact on the development of future rail services. In order to restore passengers’ trust in their safety during train journeys, increased hygiene standards will remain a concern even when the immediate challenges of the pandemic are overcome. Apart from the continued provision of hand disinfectant gel at stations and on trains and the regular cleaning of surfaces, 2020 also saw some technological innovations for better hygiene.
For example, a Czech private company developed an air-cleaning device that is now used on the trains of the national rail operator České dráhy. Other innovations include UV light for disinfection on escalators or special varnish to protect against viruses and bacteria on stair handrails and knobs. Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation have reportedly even developed a new coach for post-COVID travel featuring foot operated water taps and soap dispensers, foot operated toilet flush valves and latches in the lavatory door. The new coach also has a plasma air purification system.
Other concepts that already existed before 2020 were expanded upon during the pandemic and may become more institutionalized in its aftermath. In order to assist travelers in rural regions, Deutsche Bahn introduced video service points in 2013. These service points allow the passenger to interact with service staff via video call and therefore pose no risk of infection. Moreover, they are operated remotely, thus they do not rely on local staff and can offer more flexible “opening hours” than traditional travel centers.
Sustained lower demand for railway services
However, even with sanitary concepts in place, the question remains whether the demand for train journeys is ever going to return to pre-COVID levels. Due to the need to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at the office, working from home has become the “new normal,” and as businesses are looking to reduce costs in order to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, fewer people may need to travel into an office in the future. Trains running at lower capacity may lead to higher ticket prices, which would make the service even less attractive. This, in turn, has a considerable impact on the public response to the climate emergency, in which the expansion of rail transport as a low-carbon mode of transportation plays a decisive role. Eurostar, the independent train operator connecting London with several continental European capital cities, had to reduce its schedule from more than 60 trains running per day to three round-trips to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. At the same time, ticket prices more than doubled from the usual fare, making airplanes a considerably cheaper alternative.
On the other hand, lower demand for transportation also reduces emissions and is therefore beneficial to the climate. However, this only holds true if people do not turn to private vehicle use as an alternative to public transport as was observed in several markets such as China and the UK after the first outbreak of COVID-19. Regulators may even use the post-COVID era as an opportunity to further strengthen rail transport as a counterweight to the resource-intensive aviation industry.
More flexible tariff options or a shift towards mandatory reservations
At this stage, it is still an open question whether the future trend will be towards more flexible ticketing models. Flexibility may be a way for rail operators to attract new customers. Particularly with regard to commuter trains, pricing was structured around the normal workday with peak and off-peak hours that reflected commuter patterns.
As work habits changed radically during the pandemic, governments and train operators have had to consider more flexible tariff options. If this shift in the way people work remains after the majority are vaccinated, ticket pricing will also have to change. But flexibility is at odds with an increasingly strong stance from many train operators about bookings during the pandemic. For example, some long-distance operators require advance reservations. Will this requirement continue post-pandemic?
Depending on work and travel trends after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, governments and railway operators may need to make adjustments to pricing and incentive models to encourage the public to once again travel by train. Ensuring that train cars and the station infrastructure have the right features in place to assure the public of their safety may also be imperative. Changes to work and social habits, accelerated by the pandemic, may have changed for good. Mass transportation may need to change alongside society to retain ridership and to ensure its role in helping governments to meet climate goals as a low-carbon mode of transportation.