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Monday essay: more on board again?

Times are changing, with widespread speculation that the government is about to halve the social distancing minimum to one metre. As Sim Harris writes, the railway industry has spent several hectic weeks adapting itself for the original measurement.

IT has been a busy time for train operators and Network Rail. There may not be many passengers (a situation which could be about to change), but any idle hands which might have been the result have actually had plenty to keep them busy, attaching countless thousands of ‘two metre’ stickers to walls, floors, ticket gates and train bulkheads and windows. 

It has been a complicated effort. The floors of station concourses have been scrupulously measured out and taped up to make sure that passengers in queues (such as there are) have been disciplined in the art and science of keeping 2,000mm apart. One way systems on the approaches to gatelines have become commonplace.

Waiting rooms have been closed, seats on platforms have been labelled with notices saying ‘don’t sit here’ and trains have been marked, with their available seating reduced to only a fraction of the usual capacity. There have been plenty of anecdotal stories of intercity trains carrying no more than a handful of theoretically ‘essential’ passengers, while some trains have only been taking the driver and conductor for a quiet but lonely ride through town or country. One passenger who took his golf bag on board a local train in Norfolk was reported to have been fiercely rebuked by the staff, who did not share his view that a round of golf was an essential activity.

There is (or was) something about keeping a distance of two metres from other people – the height of a very tall person – that is (or was) quite artificial. This is why, presumably, it has had to be hammered in at every opportunity, with every bus stop or shop doorway chorusing the same warning.

But now – stand by for the revolution, at least it is claimed.

If the social distancing measurement is now halved, it will be a disproportionate leap back towards normal life. Most of us are quite comfortable being a metre or so from someone else. The third centre seat in trains with 3+2 seating has always been the last to be occupied. Very few of us are comfortable when being obliged to more or less cuddle up to complete strangers, particularly before eight o’clock in the morning. The British have always been brought up to respect the privacy of other people, and that includes not sneaking a look at the screen of your neighbour’s mobile phone.

One metre will feel very different, although whether station waiting rooms (sorry, waiting lounges) will be allowed to reopen their doors remains to be seen.

Something will need to be done about all those stickers, although as peeling them off will be an immense task, the sticker makers are probably all ready to supply small ‘1’s’ to be used as overlays.

All those kilometres of tape on station floors will need another look, though, and it will probably be necessary to take a more benevolent view about how many seats in trains and on platforms still need to be marked out of use.

A busy time awaits, then. More passengers as well? Sorry, not sure we will have time for them just yet.

Copies of the June print edition of Railnews and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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