After months in which travellers have been urged to avoid using trains, the rail industry is launching a campaign to try to entice passengers back as safely as possible.
Until last Friday, the official line was that only essential journeys should be made by train. While the government insisted the railways ran a near full service, most trains were almost empty.
Even when Boris Johnson announced the easing of rules in England, the message was equivocal.
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The prime minister said: “From today we are making clear that anybody may use public transport, while of course encouraging people to consider alternative means of transport where they are available.”
But with the school summer holidays beginning in England and Wales, train operators expect increased demand. Twelve million people in the UK have no access to a car.
Network Rail, which runs the busiest stations in Britain, is deploying more than twice as many additional staff to help customers as it did during the 2012 London Olympics.
Its chief executive, Andrew Haines, said: “I would like to thank passengers for following government advice over the last few months.
“Now, as lockdown continues to ease and the nation turns towards recovering from this pandemic, I look forward to welcoming more people back to the railway.
“We have significantly stepped up cleaning regimes and made sure there are more staff on hand to help with information so you can travel safely.”
Passengers are required to wear face coverings at all times at stations and on trains, and are being urged to travel at quieter times.
On trains, normal seating capacity has been sharply reduced to try to separate passengers.
Long-distance operators are telling passengers to reserve seats in advance and sit in the assigned location.
LNER, which runs trains on the east coast main line from London King’s Cross to Yorkshire, northeast England and Scotland, says: “It is essential that you sit in your reserved seat.
“Seats are automatically allocated to be safe and socially distanced.”
The operator has also banned alcohol from its services.
Its rival, Grand Central, will resume running trains from London to West Yorkshire and Wearside next Sunday, 26 July
Avanti West Coast, which serves the West Midlands, northwest England and Glasgow from London Euston, tells passengers: “If you don’t have a reservation for your preferred train, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to board.”
“Currently, our busiest times are between 9.30am and 1pm, and 4pm and 6pm.”
Over the weekend there were reports that messages urging people to avoid travel by train had not been updated.
Posters at London Waterloo, the busiest station in Britain and the headquarters of Network Rail, read: “Can you travel another way? Help us keep trains clear for those who really need them.”
They carried a picture of a car.
At Leeds, one of the busiest stations outside London, automated announcements advised passengers only to travel if they really needed to.
A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group said: “It is complete nonsense to suggest that train companies are still urging people not to take the train.
“Our staff are working hard to quickly change signage and update announcements in 2,500 stations.
“As well as taking out adverts in three national newspapers this weekend promoting the railway’s safer travel pledge, social media accounts across the industry are urging people to travel safely this summer.”
Wales and Scotland have yet to ease public transport advice for leisure passengers.
The Scottish government says: “Think carefully about whether you need to use public transport for travel to exercise, meet friends and family or other leisure activities.”
The government in Cardiff says: “Leave public transport for those for whom it is essential.”
Yet Transport for Wales runs many services between stations in England, including Crewe to Manchester and Shrewsbury to Chester.
“As a company based in Wales,” the train operator says, “we will continue to follow Welsh government guidelines”.
Mark Smith, the former British Rail manager who now runs the Seat61.com website, said: “The rail industry needs a positive and consistent message.
“I doubt there is any need to worry about crowding as so many people will still be cautious about travelling around if they don’t have to, whether or not it is permitted.
“European train services seem to be getting back to normal and encouraging passengers to return.”
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