Cover image: One of Greater Anglia’s new long-distance electric trains at Chelmsford station
Over the last few weeks, the messaging around train travel has softened substantially, from discouraging all but essential travel, then encouraging you to travel another way if you can (though suggesting people drive instead where possible), to – as of around a week ago – a ‘Let’s travel safely this summer’ campaign being rolled out industry-wide by Rail Delivery Group (RDG), under the guidance of the Department for Transport, finally openly advocating the use of trains for leisure travel again.
But is public transport in the UK really safe in the world of Coronavirus? Over the last couple of days I’ve taken a few journeys on various train operators in south-east England, and looked more broadly at feedback from across the rest of the country.
A unified approach
Firstly, I want to talk about the messaging the rail industry are now putting out – and the consistency of the guidelines. It seems that RDG have really worked hard on this aspect – messages are, on the whole, consistent across train operators.
Compare Greater Anglia’s message above to Thameslink’s below, as two examples:
Different formats for the messaging, but getting the same key points across. You might notice both (and other similar messages across train operators’ websites and social media platforms) refer to the Safer Travel Pledge. This isn’t a coincidence in wording, it’s been orchestrated by Rail Delivery Group in consultation with the Department for Transport. Here’s the brand-agnostic version on the nationalrail.co.uk site, which is run by RDG directly – again, whilst the format is different, the message (and some of the images) used are near-identical.
But what about onboard?
Safer travel messaging is all very well, but is somewhat pointless if not reflected in the onboard experience.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s plenty of spare capacity, particularly outside the peaks – all the photos below were taken over the past couple of days and give you an idea of just how much spare capacity there is on the network at present.
Even with social distancing of 2m (where you could only use the window seats, and only one in a bay of 4 unless travelling with your household group), I’d estimate current passengers loads are less than 20% of capacity in most cases. The one exception to this was my Friday evening journey on Southeastern from St Pancras to Stratford International (train was continuing onto Margate). Even then it was still comfortable, but I’d estimate the distanced capacity to be pretty much fully utilised.
Next, let’s talk about cleanliness. Without exception, every train I’ve travelled on has been sparkling clean – and it really does make a difference to the journey experience so it’s something I hope stays at near its current level even after the pandemic is past us. Particular shout-out here to the GTR (Thameslink) cleaning team who seemingly managed to wipe every fitting on a 12 car train during a 20 minute turnaround at Bedford! If you want to see more about the cleaning on Thameslink trains and stations, (the excellent) Geoff Marshall has done a video on exactly that which I’ve embedded below.
The last onboard change to talk about is that of mandatory face coverings – as an extra precaution, face coverings are now required on public transport (with some exceptions), and compliance on journeys I’ve taken so far has been, by and large, excellent – I’m not going to get too much into the debate on face coverings here, as it’s probably the most contentious part of the current guidance, but I will say that, regardless of the arguments as to how beneficial they really are, from a purely psychological point of view it certainly does make me feel that bit safer when travelling, in conjunction with the other precautions. (One point of note here – please don’t assume those not wearing a face covering are being inconsiderate, there are several genuine reasons for not wearing one and it’s not the public’s job to decide who is and isn’t exempt!)
The last area I want to touch on briefly is ticketing – and how this has changed with the pandemic. Unless your journey involves a cross-London Tube connection or is a London Travelcard (c’mon TfL, sort out some barcode readers!), virtually all tickets are now available as a barcode on your phone or printed at home, so you’re not touching anything except your own mobile device. That said – if you do need a physical ticket, much like onboard I’ve noticed much more frequent cleaning of self-service ticket machines, and ticket offices are open too.
So, in summary – from my own experience and, going on social media, the vast majority of others – train operators in the UK, under oversight from Rail Delivery Group and the Department for Transport, have made a huge effort to make rail travel as safe as it can be, and with a lot of amazing places reachable by train much quieter than they are normally, now might be one of the best times for a long while to take a day/weekend out by rail, so long as you take appropriate precautions. The very few issues I’ve personally seen have been caused by a few inconsiderate individuals, and at one point I did change seats to be further away from someone without a mask who was burping constantly(!), but the vast majority of people are being respectful of the guidance.
A few tips from me if you do decide to travel:
- Check and abide by Government advice, particularly with regards to local hotspots where discretionary travel isn’t advised (at the time of writing, only Leicester comes under that remit, but these locations are likely to change periodically as the pandemic progresses).
- Plan ahead – whilst most rail operators are getting back towards service levels approaching their normal timetable, some times may have changed since you last travelled by train.
- Pre-booking is required on some long-distance trains, check before you travel and in any case, it’s always a good idea to book in advance where possible.
- Allow extra time for your journey if you don’t have a reservation – where possible, and where train service frequencies allow, aim for the train before the one you actually need – just to give you some flexibility in the unlikely event the first train is at its safe social distancing capacity.
- Buy tickets on your mobile and use it to scan through ticket gates. (I’d recommend the TrainSplit app which also looks for cheaper ‘split’ tickets, or you can use the app from your local train operator, virtually all now support mobile ticketing)
- Carry hand sanitiser and use it regularly (bonus points if you find one that smells nice, which encourages you to use it more – I quite like Cuticura which has a cucumber-y scent!)
- Even if you have a reusable face covering, carry a spare just in case it breaks or gets damp en-route
- Whilst not always the case – and generally speaking all carriages are pretty quiet right now – typically the end coaches of trains tend to be quieter than the middle, so do use the full length of the train!
- Take snacks/drinks with you on longer journeys – onboard catering is slowly returning in a limited form, but taking food and drink onboard with you is probably a safer bet… and yes you can remove your mask temporarily whilst you eat/drink but be considerate of those around you!
- Visiting London? Avoid the deep-level Tube lines (Central, Jubilee, Piccadilly, Northern, Victoria) particularly in Central London, if there’s an alternative way to get to your destination – due to how narrow some of the carriages are, social distancing is much more difficult even at reduced capacity. The sub-surface lines (Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan) and the DLR have wider trains, where this is less of an issue.
As one final point, I do appreciate that, even with distancing, travel of any sort does present a slightly elevated risk at present just due to being around more people (even at 2m+), and thus I’m not advocating that train travel is entirely risk free for everyone – different people have different circumstances and risk thresholds. However, for those deciding whether to take a train journey for a day/weekend away seeing family and friends, or even contemplating a journey just to get some fresh air and see somewhere different after 4 months in the same place, I’m confident in saying that rail travel has a sufficiently low risk that exploring the UK by train this summer is as safe as it can be, so long as the guidance is followed.
If you have any questions or comments (aside from ‘where can I get one of those awesome Bedford Blues masks?’ for which the answer is here!), please leave them below!