How do you feel about returning to public transport? - Alastair Dalton

If moving around during lockdown seems strange, getting back on trains and buses is going to be feel even weirder.

An option for keeping passengers apart in buses.
An option for keeping passengers apart in buses.

In normal times, we are encouraged to take public transport to get to work - and one in seven Scots previously travelled that way.

But the signs are that it might now be the form of transport we should avoid once lockdown restrictions north of the Border are eased.

Scottish ministers have still to publish their plans, and they may differ from those in England, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already urged those returning to work there to drive, cycle or walk instead.

Seats could be marked to be left free diagonally along the bus.

The big problem for mass transit is exactly that - carrying large numbers of people at density. However, capacity could be cut to as little as 10 per cent of normal in some cases, and 20 per cent on at least some ScotRail trains.

But some people will have no option, such as the many, especially in cities, with no access to a car, or those commuting too far for walking or cycling to be feasible.

I’ve spoken to several train and bus operators who are grappling with the problem of how to maximise the number of passengers they can carry safely.

Bus firms are looking at a range of options, some even considering the viability of physically removing seats. Installing screens between rows of seats has also been proposed.

What seems more likely is some seats being taped off, but 2m distancing will be a challenge when buses are only about 2.5m wide.

One operator has told me that is not feasible, and face coverings are the answer, which could increase capacity to 40-80 per cent.

The prospect of fewer seats available than demand has prompted fears of anger of passengers being barred from boarding a three-quarters empty bus.

I’m told this could be a particular problem in rural areas and where services are infrequent.

Even waiting at busy city bus stops could be problematic should 2m distancing be required.

If you were to join the end of an elongated peak-hour queue, you might find yourself so far away as to be unable to see the number of the bus as it arrived.

Train travel could prove even more problematic, especially at larger stations where passengers could face complicated queuing systems.

Persuading workers and their employers not to travel at bus peak hours will be a big ask.

ScotRail’s trains on its flagship main line between Edinburgh and Glasgow may be able to accommodate fewer than 100 passengers each compared to their normal capacity of more than 500.

Getting on and off will be more tricky to stay distanced, perhaps with different doors for those boarding and alighting. Markers are already being added to platforms to show how far apart passengers will need to stand.

On longer-distance trains, reservations will be encouraged, with capacity reduced to about 25 per cent of normal and fewer bargain fares available so as not to encourage travel.

The big question is how many people will seek to return to public transport when they can.

Some will continue to work from home and others will switch to other modes because of health fears. But many won’t have the option.

Ministers will want to ease the potential pressure on public transport by encouraging walking and cycling while also reducing the massive levels of extra public support, which has doubled for rail firms.

Tricky times lie ahead.

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