What role will rail play in a post Covid-19 world?

24 April 2020

Chris Proctor looks to the future and rail's contribution to the post-lockdown world


This article is a preview of the May 2020 edition of the ASLEF Journal. You can read all the previous issues here.


Cheap, easy travel across continents, an endless supply of goods from remote parts of the globe, access to fruit and veg out of season, winter holidays, hen parties in obscure settings… people began to see these things, over the last 30 years, as an inalienable right.


But, when we come out on the other side of this coronavirus crisis, we're going to have to rethink all that: and rail is going to be bullseye central to the debate.


The investment bank UBS concluded last month that rail is going to play a major part in our post-coronavirus world; that cheap, frequent air transport is likely to become a thing of the past; and, for urban users anyway, the car will be seen as a wasteful and unnecessary luxury.


These locked-down weeks have made us think deeply about our communities, what we expect from central government, and how frail our previous certainties had become. And it has brought to the fore the glaring reality of climate change. How revealing it was to find that, after a mere two weeks of lockdown, some UK cities saw nitrogen dioxide (NO2 released from car exhausts) levels fall by up to 60% compared with last year.


Road transport creates 73% of greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation causes 14%. Maritime activity 13.5%. And rail? About 0.5%.


When we return to normal, the planet will stay sick unless we have a different approach towards transport. There needs to be a radical swing towards rail, not just in the UK, but globally. The UBS report concludes that we should 'expect an acceleration in the shift from planes to high speed rail in both Europe and China'. Suddenly HS2 begins to look too modest a proposal. And then there's freight.


Our freight drivers are the unsung heroes of the lockdown. Every hour of the crisis saw 188,000 tonnes of critical supplies – food, fuel and medicine – moved by rail between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.


That's more than 1 million tonnes a week. Perhaps those firms which moved to freight for clean efficient transport during the coronavirus emergency will discover the social responsibility to leave it there; and expand their use of rail. It would be one positive outcome of these desperate days.


The way we look at transport in the future isn’t a 'union' issue any longer. It's a social issue that we mustn't forget when we emerge from our front rooms. We will be told expanding the railways is a pipe dream because it’s expensive, and it is true that we will be living  for a while  in a less well-off world. Cross border trade is expected to decline by between 13% and 30% and unemployment will soar. Money will be tight. It will not be easy to convince doubters that we need to invest in rail because it will be to all our benefit in the future.


But if our plans for the future include expanding rail, both passenger and freight; ending irresponsible air flights; finding alternatives to the folly of filling our cities with tin polluting machines; and building on the sense of community that grew in the dark days of lockdown, then there is light at the end of this Gotthard tunnel.

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