New headache for ScotRail in rebuilding confidence in train travel – Alastair Dalton

There is a new competitor to rail, one of the increasing band of impressive female leaders of the industry has observed, and people are growing to like it.

Friday, 9th October 2020, 7:00 am
ScotRail plans to further highlight its Covid safety measures such an enhanced cleaning. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
ScotRail plans to further highlight its Covid safety measures such an enhanced cleaning. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

If, like me, you’re firmly established WFH – working from home – rather than commuting to the office, you may be one of the millions causing train operators quite some angst.

It’s not so much the immediate crisis, in which train passenger numbers have dramatically shrunk to mid-19th century levels, but the longer-term implications for the network.

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Jacqueline Starr, who is about to be promoted to chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group industry umbrella body, observed that many people now want to work from home, rather than just being required to.

Face coverings have been compulsory on trains in Scotland since June. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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Big questions over future of ScotRail as post-Covid shake-up looms – Alastair Dalton

She told a webinar organised by campaign group Railfuture there were multiple benefits from this for former commuters, such as the time and ticket cost savings.

However, the negative impact for the rail industry and wider economy outweighed those because of the extra spending which has evaporated, such as on coffees, snacks and lunches.

Ms Starr further warned that the window of opportunity for rail to persuade such ex-customers to return was fast closing as workers got used to WFH becoming the norm.

She said there were some hopeful signs, such as younger people being less risk-averse and more likely to return to train travel.

However, the overall message from both her and others at the webinar was the need for the industry to shout the measures being taken to keep the railway safe from coronavirus transmission.

That was highlighted by one of the most senior female Scots at Network Rail, which runs major stations like Glasgow Central and Edinburgh Waverley as well as tracks and signalling.

Charlene Wallace – appointed in March as national passenger and customer experience director as part of the body’s new passenger-first approach; it had previously focused on the likes of train operators – highlighted the huge effort it was making to persuade travellers to come back.

Publicity campaigns such as “You’re Safe in Our Hands” have been launched to emphasise the message, but Ms Wallace underlined the importance of a consistent message across the industry.

She said passengers were finding the new measures daunting, such as one-way systems at stations, as they ventured back.

In recent weeks, I’ve been unsure about the message in the wake of the relaxation of train travel being limited to key workers.

ScotRail still refers to “providing safe transport for those who need to travel by train”, suggesting to me I should think twice about boarding a train.

I had learned the firm was planning to remove that from its messaging and highlight instead its safety measures, such as enhanced cleaning.

The subtle shift was designed to dissuade fewer people from travelling while not actively encouraging it so trains did not become swamped and unsafe.

However, that is being reconsidered in the light of Wednesday’s announcement from Nicola Sturgeon that much of the population should now “avoid public transport unless it is absolutely necessary”, as part of a new tightening of the Covid restrictions.

A tricky situation for the rail industry appears to have just got worse.

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