Coronavirus: Unions warn of 'high-risk strategy' as train services ramp up

18 May 2020, 05:37

Social distancing measures will be enforced at satations
Social distancing measures will be enforced at satations. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Commuters returning to work have been warned they will be facing a new normal as train services get underway on Monday with unions warning the return increase in services is a "high-risk strategy".

Train services will ramp up across the country on Monday as coronavirus travel restrictions start to ease but commuters can expect to see crowd management in place at stations and social distancing on services.

With capacity increased from around 50 per cent to 70 per cent of the standard timetable on Monday even though the Government has urged workers not to use public transport.

Union officials have complained this is sending mixed messages to millions of workers, with many still wondering whether it is safe to return to their workplace.

Capacity onboard services will be reduced to as little as 10 per cent of usual levels in a bid to enforce social distancing.

British Transport Police will have more officers at London stations in a bid to control crowds.

Kings Cross Station, one of London's busiest transport hubs, was almost deserted on Monday morning despite more trains running in an effort to help more commuters return to work after lockdown restrictions were eased in England.

The concourse was dotted with stickers reading "Protect your NHS, stay 2m apart", while regular announcements urged people to stick to social distancing measures.

Robert Nisbet, of the Rail Delivery Group, said operators faced challenges from increasing travel capacity.

He told Sky News: "We are introducing a number of measures such as enhanced cleaning of trains and maintaining social distancing to make our passengers are as safe as possible.

"The advice is only take a train if it's absolutely necessary but consider other means of transport such as walking or cycling."

Passengers travelling by train have been told to wear a face-covering and keep a two-metre distance from other people where possible.

Transport operators are being urged by the Government to rearrange, remove or limit seating "to try and ensure social distancing is observed".

This may include blocking off seats in close proximity to others and removing face-to-face seating.

Passengers using London North Eastern Railway are only allowed to board trains if they hold a reservation as well as a ticket.

The operator is asking passengers to sit in a window seat, with one person per row of four seats, and two empty rows between each passenger.

People travelling as a household will be allowed to sit together but must maintain "a safe distance" from other passengers.

Avanti West Coast warned its customers that anyone without a reservation may not be able to travel on their choice of train due to capacities being limited to around a quarter of normal levels.

Train operator Northern said there will be "significantly reduced capacity on each and every one of our trains".

Rail services have been slashed for weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic causing a collapse in demand and a rise in staff sickness.

But the Government is now urging people in England to go to work if they cannot work from home.

Advice in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales remains that people should stay at home.

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Will Rogers, managing director at East Midlands Railway, warned that the new timetable "will only allow a small rise in the number of passengers we can accommodate".

He added: "We urge everyone to only go by train if it is necessary and keep public transport for key workers and those who must travel."

Meanwhile the Rail, Maritime and Transport union described the increase in train services as a "high-risk strategy" and expressed concern that "rushed political considerations could well override the safety issues for staff and passengers".

It has called for new compulsory protections for passengers and rail workers, including the enforcement of two-metre social distancing on trains and the compulsory wearing of face masks by passengers, which should be provided for free at stations and be able to be disposed of safely.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: "We are opposed to the early relaxation of lockdown measures and believe that non-essential workers should avoid using trains. When people absolutely must use a train, there should be new compulsory protections.

"We have the crazy situation of Eurostar passengers arriving with masks on into St Pancras but then not wearing masks when they transfer to the tube or other rail services."

A Department for Transport spokesman said the message remained that people should only go to work if they cannot work from home and they should avoid public transport if possible and maintain social distancing if they have no other choice.

He added: "We have asked operators to increase the number of services from today to help reduce pressure on the transport network, providing more space for social distancing as well as delivering increased reliability and extra capacity for the future."