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Covid-19: Public Transport

Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage greater use of public transport (1) during, and (2) after, the Covid-19 pandemic.

My Lords, as sectors gradually reopen, we are seeking to maximise available capacity, while social distancing measures remain in place, to meet demand. We have issued guidance to ensure that people stay safe while using public transport; this guidance is being kept under review. We are fully supportive of encouraging people back on to public transport, but it must be done when safe to do so.

The Government have succeeded in dissuading us from using public transport but as we get back to work, we must get back on the buses and trains to avoid traffic congestion choking our cities and our lungs. When do the Government intend to launch the new message that public transport is safe to use, and how much funding do they intend to allocate to that campaign and to bus operators to support the changes they are having to make?

The noble Baroness will be well aware that the Government’s communication strategy is evolving over time as we respond to coronavirus. She raises some very important points, and we must also consider what will happen in the future, particularly as people return to work in greater numbers in the autumn and children return to school in September. We are cognisant of all these things and our messaging is appropriate.

Does the Minister accept that Transport Ministers’ consistently doom-laden warnings about the risks involved in travelling on public transport have destroyed public confidence in the safety of our transport systems? Does she accept that any failure to extend taxpayer support beyond the proposed cut-off date of 20 September is likely to mean that buses and trains will be few and far between after that date, outside of Britain’s major conurbations? What comfort can she offer to bus and train operators and their passengers that the future of public transport in this country is secure?

The travelling public have listened to the Government and decided to heed our warnings about travelling on public transport because capacity is so limited, not because it is unsafe. The Government are working extremely closely with transport operators across all modes to establish a medium-term funding mechanism, because we want high-quality public transport in the future and our public transport system to rebound, when it is safe to do so.

My Lords, understandably, people are loath to travel on buses if not all passengers are wearing face coverings. Transport police have the power to fine offenders, but they are by no means omnipresent. How might bus drivers be given more power to implement the regulations and insist that passengers wear face coverings?

In our conversations with transport operators, it has become clear that bus drivers do not want to be the enforcement mechanism for using face coverings, particularly if they have to issue penalty notices. However, they can guide passengers to do the right thing. I can reassure the noble Baroness that the recent ONS survey showed that 86% of passengers are wearing face coverings, and we are increasing the amount of enforcement by British Transport Police and TfL authorised persons over the coming weeks.

As the virus is spread by droplets, does the Minister agree that it would be helpful if passengers on crowded public transport spoke as little as possible, since the virus can escape quite easily from the sides of the face mask?

My noble friend raises an important point about the different mitigations that can be put in place. As he will know, the recent guidance was updated from two-metre social distancing to one metre plus, and the later guidance includes not only enhanced cleaning and ventilation and wearing face coverings, but no shouting or singing. We are considering all these elements to minimise the spread of coronavirus on public transport.

My Lords, the demand for public transport increases by about five times during peak periods. Research by McKinsey has shown that the majority of those using public transport at peak times are office workers, students and recreational users, most of whom can vary their arrival and departure times. Will the Government consider requiring that only those who need to travel at a specific time—key workers—be allowed to do so, and that all organisations review their hours of activity to reflect this guidance?

The noble Lord raises an important point. We have had a number of conversations about staggered start times with not only businesses but schools. However, this must be put in the context of changing travel demand patterns. Peak periods are not where they used to be, and we must keep an eye on how they change as people start using the public transport system in greater numbers in the autumn and as schools go back in September, as I said earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

My Lords, the Government find themselves in a cleft stick because they have been so successful, together with the Mayor of London and an over-panicked media, at scaring people from travelling on public transport. But if we take the precautions the Minister has mentioned, the risk can be borne, especially by younger people. Will the Government now express the view that it can be safe to travel on public transport if you take sensible precautions, and hammer that home so the fear that many people have is diminished?

I agree with my noble friend that we must diminish any perception of fear. It has never been the Government’s intention to scare people off public transport. We have encouraged them to avoid it and to use other methods because of the capacity limits that are in place with social distancing. I reassure my noble friend that people are returning to public transport. Demand is varying significantly by mode and location, which, as I am sure noble Lords will understand, presents its own challenges, because a one-size-fits-all solution cannot help in those circumstances.

As people who completely depend on public transport emerge from shielding themselves or others, their risk of infection increases as distancing lessens in public areas even with masks. Do the Government recognise the urgent need for a clear UK-wide symbol, such as the one NHS Wales endorsed, to prompt distancing? Will she meet me to take this forward, as this costs next to nothing and can save lives?

I would be very happy to receive further information about the scheme to which the noble Baroness is referring. I am not aware of it, but we are looking at all sorts of schemes to make it easier for people to travel on public transport. For example, those exempt from face coverings can get themselves an exemption card which can be very helpful to show people who might otherwise try to enforce their use.

From yesterday, rail services were to be close to 85% of pre-Covid levels and more bus services are now running. As has been said, the problem is the severe shortage of passengers. Passenger numbers are well below even those allowed under current social distancing requirements. There may be very good reasons for it, but why is it that some airlines —with government acceptance—can apparently operate planes safely with potentially all seats occupied by passengers, but for trains and buses this is not only still not possible to do safely but apparently not anywhere near possible?

The Government are working very closely with transport operators in all modes to encourage them to do their own risk assessments, work out a safe configuration of passengers and make other interventions, such as cleaning and ventilation, so that passengers are carried as safely as possible.

My Lords, organisations concerned for pedestrians are very worried about e-scooters. The RNIB has called them

“a real and genuine threat to the ability of blind and partially sighted people to move around independently and safely.”

This is even more true if they use pavements, as they will; they already have done while they have been illegal. Unlike now, will there be robust enforcement? What arrangements are in place with police and local authorities to that end?

The noble Baroness will know that we are introducing trials of e-scooters, which will give us more data. Appropriate enforcement will be in place.

The Government have given handouts which have been very welcome in stabilising the economy, but do they accept that the most important contribution to the economy is getting people back to work, that the biggest gap in our economy is people who work in offices in our town centres, and that many of these people travel by public transport? Will the Government give priority to the use of public transport as quickly as possible?

My Lords, the Government have been asked by a number of different groups to give priority to public transport over the past few months, but to operationalise that is incredibly hard. While we are not looking to put in those sorts of mechanisms at this time, we are looking to maximise the capacity and make sure that demand comes on to the system at the appropriate time, which is why, as I said earlier, staggered starting of offices and schools is so important.

Sitting suspended.