The 22nd meeting of the UIC Covid-19 Task Force was attended remotely on 21 September 2021 by around 30 participants from across the globe.
Marc Guigon, Chair of the Task Force, welcomed the participants and gave an overview of the afternoon’s meeting, with a particular focus on defining the “new normal” for railways in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The meeting opened on the subject of “Building back passengers’ confidence based on the results of a British research programme” with a presentation by Christopher Irwin from the European Passenger’s Federation (with a particular focus on Transport Focus’s research programme), followed by a presentation by Marc Guigon himself, UIC Passenger Director, on the “New Normal” and how UIC imagines the “Future Shape of Mobility” along with its members. The meeting concluded with an open discussion on sanitary protocols in international trains.
To start off the meeting after a two-month hiatus this summer, Marc Guigon went over the current Covid-19 figures around the globe.
He also gave a brief overview of the situation in France, where 82% of the adult population is vaccinated.
The key themes of the presentations included:
- “Building back passengers’ confidence: lessons from Transport Focus’s weekly Covid-19 research programme in Britain”
Christopher Irwin, European Passengers’ Federation
The European Passengers’ Federation (EPF) is a European umbrella for national and regional passengers’ associations working hand-in-hand with the railway sector. It counts 37 member-organisation across 21 European countries. In this presentation, Mr Christopher Irwin from EPF showcased the results of a study conducted by Transport Focus, an official independent watchdog for British travellers.
Since spring 2020, Transport Focus weekly interviewed a representative sample of the British population to track changes in travellers’ behaviour and attitudes throughout the pandemic. The results were shared with decision-makers to adapt the Covid-19 measures.
To put things in context, the UK is currently going through a third wave of infections. However, the situation has improved: about 90% of people over 16 have received at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine and there are around 100 to 200 people hospitalised, compared to 1000 at the beginning of the year. While the infection rate remains high, mortality is going down thanks to the vaccine coverage.
Among the measures taken to stop the spread of Covid-19, the UK government has strongly discouraged the use of public transportation since the beginning of the pandemic. As a result, people shifted back to an individual car commute that made them feel safer, isolated from other passengers. Car use has thus substantially increased during the pandemic whereas the use of public transport has only returned to pre-pandemic levels in a few select areas.
A lack of clarity in the UK government’s communication sent a confusing message to the population: it advocated extreme caution while its figureheads made maskless appearances. It has been noted that people’s behaviours are based on perceptions of self-preservation: now that the vaccine coverage is high, barrier gestures are less and less respected because people mistakenly believe they aren’t at risk of severe forms of Covid-19 anymore.
However, one third of the study’s participants are now reluctant to use public transport for a variety of reasons: use to the lack of travel since the lockdown, confusion because of unclear government messages, reluctance to observe barrier gestures, shift to remote work, fear of infection. Even though the use of masks ceased to be mandatory in public spaces mid-August, almost half of people interviewed still want obligatory face coverings in public transport.
With one in three people needing reassurance in the form of health guarantees to hop back on public transport, railways and public transport companies have several ways to address their concerns and entice them to travel again:
- Maintain social distancing
- Enforce the use of face coverings
- Offer new on-board services
Marketing campaigns will be key to communicate on the commitments made by the railway sector to ensure safe travels for all.
Marc Guigon thanked Christopher Irwin for the detailed presentation and stressed the importance of the clarity of the message for the general public. The discussion then revolved around the attractiveness of railways post-pandemic. Yasunari Nakajima, from the East Japan Railway Company, proposed to increase incentives for passengers to take the train. Last year, the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) said railways could appeal to the rising market of leisure travel to compensate the loss of daily commuters to teleworking. Mr Nakajima agreed that railways needed to increase their attractiveness, comfortability and convenience. Solutions like increased rolling stock security or wireless connectivity for longer journeys were mentioned.
Please follow the following links to read EPF’s full studies in Britain:
- New Normal: “Inputs from the members regarding the new normal recommendations”
Marc Guigon, Passenger Director and Coordinator of the UIC Covid-19 Task Force.
The presentation opened with an overview of the multiple long-term railway megatrends affected by Covid-19:
- The evolution of mobility behaviour: new working habits (remote working, fewer business travels), new health and environmental concerns (moving away from cities), rise of new mobilities (cycling)
- Public financing: these programmes were maintained to sustain the economic activity of railways during the pandemic
- Sustainability and social concerns: reinforcement of individual environmental awareness and social concerns
- Market liberalisation: slowdown of large-scale liberalisation waves initiated pre-Covid in the long-distance passenger railway market
- High-speed infrastructure development: accelerated public investment and a willingness to create alternatives to air travel may help the extension and modernisation of infrastructure
Railways must take advantages of these environmental concerns to invest in the next 10 years, before planes and cars switch to green propulsion modes in a 15-20 year timeframe. Passengers are ready to travel longer distances by train and there is an interesting shift toward rail tourism. By 2030, railways need to achieve three objectives:
- Enhance customer experience
- Improve rails economic equation
- Increase environmental performance
Rail can further increase its modal share by creating new cities connections and developing night trains, thus answering a demand unmet by other means of transport.
In the discussion that ensued, Marc Guigon asked participants to contribute ideas to develop railway infrastructure, undertakings, and stations based on the recommendations of the White Paper. This group work will be finalised for presentation at the next European Management Committee.
- Sanitary protocols in international trains
Discussion about potential harmonization and/or exchange of information
The presentations were followed by a round table where that Task Force Members discussed sanitary protocols in international trains. The difficulty of enforcing restrictions across borders became apparent, not to mention the rapidly changing measures in place. According to Kirsten Verlaan from NS (Dutch Railways), it is a political discussion: while harmonisation would be ideal, especially across Europe, as long as neighbouring countries have different Covid-19 measures in place, it will be impossible to harmonise sanitary protocols in international trains.
In conclusion of the meeting, Marc Guigon, UIC Passenger Department Director, invited members of the Task Force to put forth topics they wish to discuss in the next meetings.
As per usual, Members are encouraged to share their thoughts on recommendations for the new normal – either by writing to the UIC Task Force team or by posting in the UIC Extranet: https://extranet.uic.org/index.php
All guidance documents can be consulted on UIC’s dedicated Covid-19 webpage, which is regularly updated with the latest video, news articles, webinars and other audiovisual material: https://uic.org/covid-19
As a reminder, the Task Force LinkedIn group is open to members. Feel free to join the group and share your thoughts: https://lnkd.in/eEKqfW2
The next two Task Force web-conferences are scheduled to take place on 19 October 2021 (13.00-15.00 CET) and 23 November 2021 (13.00-15.00 CET). Members are asked to give details of their expectations of future meetings.