This story is part of a special In Focus series taking an in-depth look at the impact of the pandemic.
Transport is often associated with busyness; commuters crammed up against each other on a bus, crowds gathered under a railway departures board, or cars gridlocked in traffic for as far as the eye can see.
As coronavirus quickly gathered momentum across the UK, these hectic scenes quietly slipped into images of grounded planes, clear roads and empty trains as the nation focused on staying at home.
Overnight, companies saw their business models collapse, as millions of people simply stopped travelling. For an industry that exists to keep people moving, lockdown was an existential blow.
But just as vacant platforms have become a symbol of 2020’s abnormality, transport systems steadily filling up again has become a barometer for how close we are to the pandemic’s end.
Now, with mass vaccinations on the horizon, transport bosses are hopeful they’ve weathered the worst of the storm. But how much of a long term impact will Covid-19 have on the way we move around? And what have transport leaders learnt from all they’ve been through?
Perhaps the most important question that still remains to be answered is: do we really want transport to return to the way it was before?
Avoiding buses, trams and trains where necessary became a key part of government guidance during the pandemic.
National Rail passengers dropped to just 4% of its full capacity by April 10, and remained in singular digits until June. While train use went on to peak at 43% in September, it plunged to 22% once the second lockdown began.
Nicole Elgram, a Network Rail shift station manager at London’s Euston station, described the drop in passengers as a shock to the system. She says: ‘It was quite sad to see. We’re used to about 200,000 customers a day, and now it’s about 35,000.
‘After lockdown it increased to nearly 60,000, but it plummeted again with its return. You no longer see any groups on the concourse.’
Passenger assistance also dwindled as vulnerable people limited their travel. Data from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) revealed there were 95.1% fewer booked passenger assists between April and July 2020 than in the same period last year.
Social distancing rules also prevented new drivers from learning their routes, and cleaners revealed how empty carriages made their jobs ‘all about sanitising’ with no rubbish to clear.
James Edwards, a rail enforcement officer team leader for Govia Thameslink Railway, patrols platforms in a bid to reduce suicides, anti-social behaviour and crime. He says the pandemic made him busier than usual as it was easier to spot people at risk.
He explains: ‘We were expecting a rise in people feeling down, but it was also more visible. We also deal with a lot of children running away from home. Before they’d be mingling with the crowd.’
The Department for Transport (DfT) temporarily nationalised privately-owned franchised rail companies in March due to struggling ticket sales, and anticipates spending £10 billion to help them through the pandemic.
But open-access operators such as Hull Trains, who take on full commercial risk, received no funding and suspended their services during both lockdowns.
Managing director Louise Cheeseman says: ‘In the space of 10 days we went from moving record numbers of people, to moving fresh air. We were carrying about seven to 11 people per service.
‘The whole thing was hugely sad. We’ve had to make some redundancies, which has been very difficult because we’re very much a family business. MPs have called for funding on our behalf, but sadly it’s not come to anything.’
Ms Cheeseman is hopeful Hull Trains can get back to ‘normal’ if they can survive to Easter. But Tony Travers, a London School of Economics professor, says this year’s ‘stay at home’ messaging will first need to be reversed.
He explains: ‘The longer people are discouraged, the more they get out the habit. The shift towards working from home could also radically reduce commuting.
‘The difficulty is, if only 80% of passengers return, they could end up paying fares that are 25% higher. Or there will have to be quite radical cut backs to the transport system.
About a month into lockdown drivers started putting cling film onto the holes in their door and the cash tray
‘I’d say it’s inevitable – even if the economy bounces back – that fewer people will use public transport, unless the government incentivises it. Would they then give disincentives to stop people from using their cars? We just don’t know.’
Transport for London (TfL) has received a £1.7 billion government package to last until March next year, with staff working throughout the pandemic.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Metro.co.uk revealed 47 TfL workers died with Covid-19 this year – including 34 people working for bus companies, 30 of whom were drivers.
According to a UCL Institute of Health Equity report, Covid-19 rates among London bus drivers exceeded death rates across the whole capital between early April and May.
Driver James Rossi, 42, says: ‘I told my colleagues – you’re going to get Covid-19 because there’s nothing to protect you. You’ve got no PPE, no shielding round the cabs.
It’s absolutely fine to treat a bus driver worse than a dog
‘About a month into lockdown drivers started putting cling film onto the holes in their door and the cash tray. Later the doors were sealed up, but by then it was way too little, way too late.’
TfL’s buses are run by more than 20 different operators, making a Covid-secure standard hard to achieve. Meanwhile, drivers are also not allowed to refuse customers who aren’t wearing face masks.
A Unite survey in November found 70% had struggled to wash their hands regularly due to a shortage of toilets available.
Unite Regional Officer John Murphy says: ‘There is a complete lack of dignity. If you had a puppy and you didn’t take it to the toilet for five hours, the RSPCA might want to talk to you. But it’s absolutely fine to treat a bus driver worse than a dog.’
While fears rose about how safe it was to travel on public transport, lockdown returned England’s roads to the safest levels they’ve been in years.
FOI data obtained from major police forces showed dramatic falls in the number of crashes reported.
West Midlands Police were called to 296 collisions in April this year, compared to 812 in April 2019 and 1,683 in April 2018. In the same month in Yorkshire, it was 723, compared to 2,228 last year. For Avon and Somerset Police there were just 137 calls, compared to 714 in 2018.
But with quieter roads, the temptation to speed was high. Andy Cox, who until recently was a Detective Superintendent in the Met’s Roads and Transport Policing Command, says they clocked someone doing 163mph in a 70mph zone, while another driver was caught doing 84mph in a 20mph zone.
Mr Cox says the lockdown focused attention on road safety in a way that hasn’t been seen in years and the Met reallocated resources to focus on speeding. In turn, the force say they have seen ‘dramatic reductions’ in fatal and serious injury collisions as a result.
However, the idea of the car as a safe haven posed a very real problem for transport bosses. As restrictions started to ease and people began to move around more, it was predicted a spike in private car use would cause traffic mayhem on Britain’s roads.
Although there had been a big shift towards people cycling and walking more during lockdown, with bike sales increasing 63% between April and June, it wasn’t going to be enough to avoid potential gridlock.
In response to these concerns, the Department of Transport decided to throw emergency funding behind a scheme that would prove hugely divisive – Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.
Bluntly, LTNs are intended to frustrate drivers into giving up their cars. If rat runs are blocked off and all traffic is pushed onto major routes, then eventually someone making a short trip to the shop will decide it isn’t worth it.
‘LTNs are really quick and simple interventions. It doesn’t involve digging up the pavements, it is a compromise,’ says James Austen, the London Director of charity Sustrans.
‘People can still park outside their homes. It is inexpensive and it makes roads safer and cleaner for people moving about the city.’
Messing around with roads is never plain-sailing but those pioneering LTNs weren’t quite prepared for how much of a hornet’s nest they were poking.
The major failing was in communication. Schemes were seen to crop up in areas overnight and the result was close to warfare. In some areas, planters were trashed and councillors were sent death threats.
Facing mass opposition, councils started panicking. In Redbridge, east London, the council had been given £500,000 funding in July to set up four LTNs. By October, all were scrapped after an ‘overwhelming’ number of people protested against them.
People were really really angry, I was horrified at the atmosphere
Local resident Ruth Musgrave, 68, thought LTNs were a good idea. She’d seen lots of people on their bikes in the park during lockdown but hardly anyone cycling on the roads.
However, Mrs Musgrave, who works in conflict resolution, soon discovered many didn’t feel the same way when she logged on to a Zoom consultation.
‘People were really really angry, I was horrified at the atmosphere on the call,’ she says, ‘It’s a sense of: “You can’t tell me what to do. A car is seen as a safe haven – it provides security, your own little kingdom that keeps you safe.”’
Some who oppose LTNs say they make roads less safe because thieves prey on quiet streets, others think they are too much of blunt restriction on every day life.
Susan Oliver, 54, suffers from chronic osteoarthritis and severe anxiety. She says she feels ‘trapped’ and ‘forgotten about’ after a LTN was put in where she lives in Wharf Road, Islington.
The mum-of-three, who used to work as a nurse, can’t walk long distances and uses a specially adapted mobility car to get around. The road closure means she says she has to go on a half an hour detour to get to the shops and even then, the traffic is ‘hellish’.
Supporters of LTNs say they will eventually take cars off the road so people, like Susan, who actually need to drive can get around more quickly.
Despite the problems, a further £175 million in funding for LTNs was offered by the DfT in November.
Hirra Khan Adeogun, senior campaigner at climate charity Possible, believes there is still time to change people’s minds.
‘Low traffic neighbourhoods shouldn’t be so divisive,’ she says. ‘Fewer cars on the road is better for the climate, our health, and those who have no alternative but to drive.
‘We have to look at the evidence which shows that once these changes are firmly embedded into an area, they work, residents love them, and almost never want the traffic back.’
The giant ‘holding pen’ at Hong Kong International Airport has been likened to an exam hall. Passengers sit alone for hours at socially distanced tables, waiting to be tested for coronavirus, with nothing to do but stare into the abyss.
But those who are taking part are the lucky ones. Hong Kong, which has all but eradicated coronavirus, still has a strict travel ban in place and no non-residents can enter.
For an industry that has marketed itself on glamour, adventure and endless possibility, the holding pen almost epitomises how dramatically things have changed.
‘It had been a really buoyant five to 10 years for the airline industry,’ says Neil Robinson, an academic specialising in tourism and travel at Salford Business School.
‘The budget airlines that sprung up in the last 20 years had models based on quick turn-arounds, keeping planes in the sky as much as possible and targeting the most popular destinations. They always operated on tight margins but it worked and they were hugely successful.’
The airline industry knew it was facing existential questions about its environmental impact but most predicted the good times would keep coming.
Bosses had just seen their 10th consecutive year of growth by passenger numbers and most major airports were looking to expand, rather than scale back.
At first, the pandemic was seen as a temporary blip, something that would be overcome by May. But normality for the airline industry still seems a long way off. For the week starting November 30, the number of scheduled flights worldwide was still down by 45.8%.
I had to pretend I smoked just to get outside for some fresh air
‘Back in April I was confidently predicting that airport testing would be ramped up and this would help travel get started again even without a vaccine,’ says Darren Ellis, a lecturer in Air Transport Management at Cranfield University.
‘For whatever reason this hasn’t happened and nothing has really changed in the last nine months for airports. I’m not a health expert but I can only assume no one has come up with a test that is cheap, quick and accurate enough to work.
‘Now I suspect waiting for the vaccine will overtake any efforts to get mass testing off the ground.’
At times this year airline crew have been the only people flying at all. A British Airways pilot we spoke to described the myriad of complex new rules he’s had to go through jumping from country to country.
He says: ’In the US you have to wear a mask in the airport and in hotels but can come and go as you please. In Bangkok you have 48 hours, your room key only lets you in once and then you are locked in. In Buenos Aires I had to pretend I smoked just so I could get outside for a bit of fresh air.’
A recent study commissioned by Inmarsat last month found only a third of passengers surveyed have taken a commercial flight since the pandemic began and only 47% expect to feel ready to fly within the next six months.
Most worryingly for airlines, eight in 10 passengers do not expect to return to their previous travel routines once Covid-19 is behind us.
Mr Robinson expects the holiday industry to bounce back strongly – he says travellers quickly forget about the bad days when there’s a chance of some sun – but much also depends on those who would usually fly for work.
One former jet-setter who has been grounded this year is Elisa Alvares, who works in entertainment finance. She cancelled each of her 12 planned trips as the pandemic took hold and is not sure if she’ll ever travel as much again.
The mum of one, who lives in London, says: ‘Travelling is necessary if you have a practice like mine but it is taxing. So maybe there is a case for Zoom calls and it is healthier and better for the world around us.’
Travelling is necessary but it is taxing. Maybe there is a case for Zoom calls
Both experts we spoke to predicted those airlines who weather the pandemic will come back stronger, but there will likely be a few who go out of business before the worst is over.
We’re all likely to see costs go up as a result but there may still be some new entries into the market. Whatever happens, it’s likely to be a long time before flying regains its glamorous image.
With borders closing, thousands of seafarers were unable to disembark their vessels, despite their contracts ending.
Ports prevented outside nationalities from coming ashore, while suspended air travel meant new staff couldn’t fly in to take over from those signing off.
Crew changes were also limited to just 25%, when previously 90% were allowed to disembark at one time. An estimated 400,000 people now remain stuck at sea, with 2,000 of them believed to be Brits.
Some have been out there for more than 17 months – despite 11 months being the maximum length of time a person can be at sea under international maritime law.
Peter Roberts*, an engineering officer on an LNG tanker, was stuck at sea for an additional two months during the first lockdown.
He says: ‘Countries weren’t explaining their rules to the people enforcing them. You’d get the bags packed, be ready to leave and then immigration would change their mind.
‘This happens over and over, it’s very demoralising. The uncertainty is draining. The captain’s dad died and normally he’d be signed off on compassionate leave, but it wasn’t possible due to Covid-19.’
More than 80% of the world’s trade is carried by sea, and the work often requires constant attention for up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
Chief officer Mark Rumgay*, missed his wedding in October after getting stuck on a container ship. He worked every day from 4am to 12pm and 4pm to 8pm.
He says: ‘You feel emotionally exhausted. It’s the mental fatigue of never seeing an end to your contract.
The captain’s dad died and normally he’d be signed off on compassionate leave, but it wasn’t possible due to Covid-19
‘You have to become numb about the prospect of going home, because if you get excited your brain goes home before you and you lose concentration.
‘My three-month contract turned into five months, but that’s nothing compared to what some Filipinos are experiencing. I know one that’s now 19 months and counting.’
The Sailors’ Society, a charity providing support to seafarers, have seen a huge increase in demand for their services since March.
Several ports prevented chaplains from boarding, but the organisation still deals with 23,000 seafarers and around 130 helpline calls a month.
Staff are also supporting an estimated 400,000 seafarers stuck at home without income, many of whom are in the Philippines or China, and have given out 12 times as many welfare grants since March.
Neil Ramos* had to stay at home for nearly eight months. He says: ‘I had nothing coming in. I’ve never really had bad anxiety until now. I’ve been borrowing money from my family and have had to sell my things to survive.’
Among those out of work are cruise ship staff, thousands of whom were repatriated during the first lockdown, as companies could not afford to keep them at sea. Most cruises lines have suspended their services until 2021.
Graham Isles*, a food and beverage manager who had worked at sea for nearly 20 years, lost his job when he was forced to return to the UK in March. He missed out on furlough because he had been living abroad.
He says: ‘It was a very hard time for me personally. When you find something you actually love, and it’s taken away from you through no fault of your own… it was tough.
‘I would absolutely love to go back, at the drop of a hat. As crew members, every year we get the flu jab to protect our guests on board anyway. So I imagine it will be the same as soon as we get the vaccines.’
*Names have been changed.
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected]
For more stories like this, check our news page.
MORE: ‘A different world is possible’: How the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the environment
MORE: People urged not to use trains at Christmas because they will be ‘too busy’
Exploring the stories behind the headlines, In Focus is the brand new long read report series from Metro.co.uk.
Source: Read Full Article