Tuesday 4 August 2020 4:39 pm

Coronavirus: How safe is the post-lockdown commute to work?

After more than four months of lockdown Londoners are beginning to return to the office as public transport operators take measures to make the once-daily commute as safe as possible from coronavirus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave employers “more discretion” from 1 August to bring back their staff if it was safe to do so.

And business leaders such as Barclays’ Jes Staley are keen to bring an end to their enforced exodus from London’s business hubs in the City and Canary Wharf.

However, they will have to contend with staff who may be reluctant to abandon their lie-ins and longer showers for 6am alarms and crowded train carriages.

For others, health remains the main concern. According to commuter watchdog Transport Focus, three in 10 workers “do not feel safe on public transport at the moment”.

One of the main challenges over the coming months may be convincing staff that it is indeed safe to travel.

Unsurprisingly, public transport operators have sprung into overdrive since the coronavirus lockdown began to ease. They have implemented monumental cleaning regimes, social distancing and the mandatory wearing of masks to make commuting as safe as possible for passengers.

Transport for London’s (TfL) director of bus operations Claire Mann says convincing people it is safe to travel is one of the transport network’s key goals for the coming weeks and months.

“Clearly, as restrictions ease, we need to play our part in the economic recovery by ensuring people have the confidence to come back to public transport,” she tells City A.M.

“What we really want to do is encourage people that they can return to public transport, and we want to make sure that they realise that it’s clean and safe.”

What have transport operators done to make commutes safe?

Rail operators have put in place a huge package of measures to make sure services are clean for post-lockdown commutes.

For example, Southern Rail cleans every one of its 2,700 carriage overnight, and also runs “turnaround cleaning” operations. These involve sanitising seats, arm rests, tables, door buttons and grab rails every time a service pulls into its terminus.

Every 21 days Southern also applies a chemical agent called Zoono to its carriages. Customer service director Chris Fowler tells City A.M. the product gives 30 days’ protection against the virus. Other operators like Southeastern Rail and TfL are also using the disinfectant. 

Govia Thameslink Railway staff spray Zoono as an anti-coronavirus measure at St Alban’s Station. (Credit: GTR)

In addition, Fowler says Southern Rail has made a Covid-19 plan for every one of its stations. It has added sanitisation stations, one-way routes and emergency plans to avoid overcrowding on post-lockdown commutes.

It is also trying to keep to two-metre social distancing measures on all of its services, despite the government reducing the official guidelines to “one metre plus”

Many of these steps are common across operators, Fowler says, in an attempt to create a “seamless journey for the customer, so they are not faced with one company doing something different from another”.

Some have called in the scientists to test how effective their approaches to coronavirus-proof commutes are. Last month Imperial College biologists carried out coronavirus testing at high frequency touch points, and in the air at Vauxhall, Pimlico and Victoria stations. All 24 samples came back negative. 

Southeastern has also done the same at five of its stations, with the same result: no coronavirus was found, and it will now go ahead with testing at all of its stations before passengers begin commutes in earnest.  

How to coronavirus-proof your post-lockdown commute

Passengers can also ensure their commute to work after lockdown is as safe as possible from coronavirus. The advice is pretty simple, says Fowler – wash your hands, wear a mask, and check your travel arrangements to avoid busy services.

And of course, if it is possible for you to walk or cycle to work, he adds, you should do so, to avoid crowding on services.

So far it seems that the majority of commuters are following these instructions. Speaking to the Transport Select Committee last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan said 90 per cent of Londoners using TfL public transport are complying with coronavirus face mask rules. A further five per cent are exempt for medical reasons.

A walkthrough of the social distancing measures that have been put in place at Blackfriars Station to enable post-lockdown commutes. (Credit: GTR)

Is it safe to use public transport amid coronavirus?

However, there remains a sense that many people still need to be convinced that it is in fact safe to use public transport while coronavirus remains a threat.

The success of the government’s earlier ‘Stay At Home’ messaging is partly to blame, Go-Ahead Group’s commercial director Katy Taylor says.

“At first, the government was very nervous about the number of people using public transport for social distancing reasons,” she tells City A.M. “But this mutated into an understanding that public transport itself was unsafe.”

“But that rationale was only for social distancing – public transport isn’t not safe and has never been not safe,” she adds.

Mann agrees. She says using public transport is “at least” as safe as going to the pub or the supermarket, “if not safer” for post-lockdown commutes. 

Could coronavirus spell the end for rush hour commutes?

Arguably, the best thing that commuters can do is try to avoid the dreaded rush hour.

Social distancing rules mean Tube services can only carry up to 25 per cent of their capacity safely, a figure which rises to 40 per cent for buses.

TfL and others say they have been in touch with businesses to ask them to consider shifting employees’ working hours where possible.

At Southern, for example, staff offer companies data as to how busy their stations are in 15-minute chunks over the course of the day to try and flatten peaks in demand.

Again, it appears to be working. Mann and Fowler both say travel patterns have already started to shift in recent weeks.

Coronavirus may lead to the decline of the dreaded rush hour commute, with people travelling at different times of day instead.

“We’ve seen the peak shift – it’s far earlier now. We used to talk about seven to half eight as the busiest period but it’s now starting from five or half five and it’s really spread out,” Fowler explains.

More than one in three commuters in Transport Focus’ survey said they thought their job will be home-based with limited travel to their workplace in future. Among those who were previously rail commuters, this figure rose to almost half.

So could the rush hour be a thing of the past? Travel operators suspect we may well have seen the last of crowded public transport commutes after coronavirus. But those City A.M. spoke to are waiting to see what happens when more people start travelling over the coming months.

Commuters can ‘manage the risk’ coronavirus poses

Although higher numbers of people are now starting to use public transport again, Mann says TfL is not expecting a surge when the government’s work from home directive ends in early August.

Instead London’s transport body is preparing for a “slow rise through September”.

When commuters do return in higher numbers, Mann says it is key that operators try and project a sense of normality to reassure them.

But ultimately, as Taylor tells City A.M., the onus also lies on commuters to manage the risks that they are prepared to take.

“The risks are no greater on public transport than they are in any number of other avenues. They are no greater than in a pub, a supermarket, or a workplace, so it’s about evaluating risk”, she said. 

“At the end of the day, it’s as safe as anything you’re going to do outside your house.”