Why I felt safe getting back on the train for the first time since lockdown
PUBLISHED: 16:30 24 August 2020 | UPDATED: 16:43 24 August 2020
Back in mid-March when lockdown was brought in, one of the most seriously-affected industries was public transport.
The government, quite rightly, identified that one of the easiest ways of getting infected with what became known as Covid-19 was by travelling in a crowded train, bus, tube, or tram. The public was banned from using them except if there was no way of making essential journeys.
Passenger numbers fell by more than 95%. We published pictures of Greater Anglia’s shiny new trains travelling to London virtually empty. On some local services there was nothing “virtual” about the emptiness.
Buses too were travelling about with just one or two passengers. The public transport industry was being supported financially by the government, but the message from on high was clear: walk, cycle, travel by private car if you must – but don’t use public transport unless there is no alternative.
For me personally this was a loss – I like travelling by train and if I have a day off on my own I’ll often take an Anglia Plus ticket for a day out with lunch on the cliff top at Cromer followed by an hour and a half in Ely or Lowestoft while travelling around the region.
The advice changed over the months. First we were told that anyone travelling by public transport would have to wear a face covering. Then the government’s message changed from “don’t travel by public transport” to “take care when travelling by public transport.”
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This, we heard, had pushed passenger numbers up a bit – to about 20% of pre-lockdown levels – but still nowhere near enough to profitable service on most routes.
I decided to take my first train trip in more than six months (longer than I have ever been train-free since I was a young child) to see what the situation is – and found the trip enjoyable and felt very safe indeed.
I wanted to see what it was like on both rural and Intercity services. I would have travelled from Ipswich to Lowestoft, across to Norwich, and then back to Ipswich. That was not possible because the Wherry line from Lowestoft to Norwich was closed for new track to be installed, so I did a trip from Ipswich to Lowestoft followed by a trip to London and back.
On my first trip to Lowestoft the train was about 20% full when we left Ipswich. Everyone seemed to be wearing face coverings. There was considerable “churn” of passengers at stations like Woodbridge, Saxmundham, Halesworth and Beccles – but overall the number of travellers seemed fairly constant over the whole journey.
Armed with statistics from the Rail Safety and Standards Board that there is a 1 in 11,000 chance of catching Covid-19 on a one hour train ride (and it’s considered to much less than that in areas with low infection rates like the East of England) I felt very safe throughout.
The return train from Lowestoft a couple of hours after we arrived was almost empty at the start of the journey when the conductor made an announcement about mandatory face coverings. However it filled up steadily along the line, especially after Saxmundham.
I was slightly disappointed to see several people not wearing face coverings properly – not covering their noses or mouths – it’s fine to have them on your chin if you are eating or drinking on a train, but not if you’re just talking to your mates! Those people will not have heard the conductor’s announcements because they had joined the train before the start of its journey.
The new Intercity train from Ipswich to London – and its return to service – were very fast and comfortable. These new trains are so fast they tend to arrive at intermediate stations early and have to wait for several minutes to leave on time. It was clear that every service from London to Ipswich could be done in 60 minutes – with stops at Colchester, Manningtree and Stratford – if the timetables would allow that.
Overall, I felt perfectly safe throughout my journey. Some might say I would, wouldn’t I? I enjoy train travel and for me during lockdown it wasn’t a trip to the pub or a restaurant that I yearned for, it was the ability to jump on one of the new trains on the East Suffolk Line that I can just about see from my desk in my home office.
I certainly plan to return to the tracks over the next few weeks and months so long as there is no second spike in Covid-19 cases – for a start I want another trip on the Wherry Line and there’s a fish and chip shop on the cliff top at Cromer that I haven’t been to this year yet!
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