On April 22, I undertook only my third rail-way journey in 14 months - and my first LNER trip in seven months.
Pre-COVID, I would have regarded that as utterly inconceivable. Considering that pre-pandemic I was an LNER Peterborough-King’s Cross passenger for up to five days a week (generally at least three), with frequent side trips to places including York, Edinburgh and Glasgow, this journey with LNER caused the adrenaline to surge in anticipation.
For the past 14 months, RAIL has been put together every ten working days by my second-to-none editorial team, capably led by Deputy Editor Stefanie Foster, ably assisted by Head of News Richard Clinnick, Features Editor Paul Stephen and our team of freelancers, with top-quality behind-the-scenes support from Production Editor Mike Wright, Art Editor Charles Wrigley and Office Manager Ellie Johnson. Other than Stef and Ellie, who I have seen a couple of times since September 2020, I haven’t laid eyes on the others (other than by Teams or Zoom) since February 2020. The same applies to all the rail industry figures I normally meet in London and around the country.
I know lots of other RAIL readers have travelled regularly during COVID restrictions. But I haven’t, which makes me a decent proxy for millions of other one-time regular rail passengers who have also been holed-up at home for a year or more. My experience is relevant with regard to enticing passengers back on board trains when we are ‘unlocked’. In the light of persistent government messaging implying (wrongly) that public transport generally - and trains in particular - are dangerous hotbeds of infection, I’m sure lots of other potential ‘returnees’ feel the same way.
So, how was my return to rail? It was exciting, but I wouldn’t be truthful if I didn’t confess to being a tad apprehensive (nervous, even) of doing something which was once a common feature of life I hadn’t thought twice about.
I’d last been on an LNER train to London last September, to shoot the virtual National Rail Awards ceremony, and it had felt very odd. It was tense. Everyone had an invisible but all-too-obvious and intensely wary ‘keep away from me’ aura. No one chatted on the train. On board, staff went quickly about their duties without lingering. That King’s Cross journey was not pleasant, through no fault of LNER.
My April 22 LNER journey to Leeds from Peterborough was much more relaxed. Staff and regular passengers alike have since adapted to the strictures of social distancing and there was a much easier, relaxed mood among passengers and staff alike, both on the train and at the stations.
Mask wearing was, however, patchy among passengers and staff. It was better on the trains, but there were still a few chinstrap mask wearers, plus some dangling free from one ear. I did notice a few maskless faces among the platform staff at Leeds and Doncaster, where quite a few young adult male passengers were pointedly not wearing masks and earning some disapproving looks - including from me. The whole trip was bang-on-time.
Which isn’t the same thing as saying it was all pleasant - because some aspects were not and these will need to change.
My biggest worry is that Government or operators will use the Draconian demands of the last year to sneak through developments which would face an uphill battle in normal times. Most important of these is the dreadful prospect of compulsory seat reservations - my belief is that this must not be allowed and those who oppose it need to start making a noise now and ‘prepare to mobilise’, so that the DfT, Treasury and industry all understand that they may face their own version of football’s European Super League shambles. We must not allow them to impose a restrictive practice which is all about their benefits and conv-enience, not ours as passengers.
The walk-up railway is sacrosanct to me, and must not be allowed to be eased into history without a fight. The faff of co-ordinating train times involving only one change on my journey was a monumental pain in the proverbial. Not knowing when you’re likely to make the return trip and having to guess how long your business will take and to pick a train is bad enough - but we encountered an extra really irksome difficulty. We made a reservation for my travelling companion on the 1515 - only to find it was the last seat! I had to wait until 1615 at Leeds and change again at Doncaster.
That a mid-afternoon ex-Leeds train on an April weekday was full means that unless social distancing is relaxed, when the passengers return (which increasing anecdotal evidence suggests is starting to happen), the railway stands no chance of fully recovering.
I am especially concerned about compulsory reservations. What’s needed is a return to the pre-pandemic system where you reserved a seat only if you wanted. If that choice is removed we will prioritise the needs and convenience of the railway and DfT over those of the passengers who pay for it all. This would be hypocritical, given how many lectures from ministers we’ve had about putting passengers first.
Demanding we all book seats would make the railway more cumbersome, awkward and difficult to use at a time we need to make it easier and less complex (including fare structures and prices), and would thus choke off rail’s recovery.
DfT has already treated the passengers it demands the railway should proritise, with disdain, with its ghastly seats and interiors. We should not copy more of aviation’s everyday practices. The best way to win passengers back is to enhance rail’s unique selling points (USPs) - not erode them further by making rail even more like air travel in ‘feel’ and experience.
I know Transport Focus shares this view, and RAIL plans to make this case strongly. We will shortly be looking at all aspects of reservations in order to inform this debate - so watch this space. We shall examine not only the ‘hard’ aspects of seat reservations in the practical sense, but also its ‘soft’ aspects, which play a significant role at the point where a traveller chooses their mode of travel.
One last really annoying point about my trip to/from Mirfield. Having compelled me to wait an hour at Leeds for the next Up train, I then had to pace the drafty station or hang about in dusty corners, because it appeared that all the passenger seating has been removed? Talk about unwelcoming!
This is not how we will win passengers back to our trains. I had actually considered driving to Mirfield, but decided that was ridiculous and stuck with the train. A repetition of that palaver with reservations, and having to stand for an hour on a seatless station with few refreshments, might make even me think twice about going by car.