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Through the Storm and Forward: Rail Transport at the Time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted economies around the world as it has forced people’s daily lives to a grinding halt. The coronavirus outbreak is reasonably expected to have lasting impacts on our individual behaviour and lifestyle, particularly on the way we work, consume and travel. In regard to the latter, transport and mobility are at the epicentre of the immediate and long-term challenges posed by the global health crisis. From urban traffic to international trade flow, bustling movement has given way to hushed calm. Many countries have closed their borders and imposed curfews – resulting in sharp reductions in transport demand at both the local and continental level.

Nonetheless, even during such difficult times, transport’s fundamental function of moving people and goods has remained an imperative, not a choice. The whole European rail sector, including its supply industry, has been working relentlessly to keep the inevitable economic impact as limited as possible while ensuring that international supply chains best continue to move seamlessly under these unprecedented circumstances.

UNIFE believes that a strong response to the post COVID-19 economic and social consequences must be taken primarily at the EU level, in conjunction with national efforts. To that end, we strongly welcome the Roadmap for Recovery ‘Towards a more resilient, sustainable and fair Europe’, endorsed by Member States in April. In particular, the document includes a strong investment component that welcomingly confirms an upcoming “comprehensive recovery package with the EU budget at its heart” for a Marshall Plan-type investment effort. It also defines key areas for action, including investments in clean and digital technologies, ensuring the strategic autonomy of the EU through a dynamic industrial policy and the crucial restoration of trade flows and supply routes.
Perspectives and Solutions for Rail Passenger Transport

Rail and public transport find themselves particularly under pressure as governments worldwide struggle to engineer a gradual, cautious restart of several economic and commercial activities. Arguably, in the short- and perhaps medium-term, ridership and transport demand are likely to drop for both mainline and urban passenger services as sanitary guidelines continue to recommend social distancing and the limitation of our movements.

Despite the ongoing crisis and its stringent sanitary guidelines, the whole rail sector has not been sitting around waiting. During this time, the rail community has been looking to the future and working on a systematic, sensible and coordinated response. The goal is to put in place a set of measures targeting each phase of a mainline and urban journeys that sharply minimise the risks for the public transport staff as well as for passengers, curbing further the spreading of the infection.

Such measures would require an efficient coordination between transport companies and public security and health authorities , as much as their implementation would follow a careful assessment based on scientific evidence. These norms, whenever communicated, must be adequately accessible and understandable by everyone. Additionally, on the supply industry side, European rail manufacturers have made the safety of workers an absolute priority, while making unprecedented efforts to ensure the continuity of the production.

The rail sector has actively followed public health guidelines to help ‘’flatten the curve’’ and inspire public confidence in public transport during this distressing period. For example, it has become obligatory to wear personal protective gear such as masks and gloves and to disinfect vehicles and facilities. Furthermore, the sector has rearranged timetables and reorganised indoor spaces to limit ‘peak hours’ and ensure safe distance between users at all times.

Following this further, new digital applications offer public rail transport solutions that will help navigate it successfully through this storm. There exists a plethora of data-driven technologies that can be utilised by health and public transport authorities to facilitate and accelerate their decision- making. Locating and tracing passengers in real-time while communicating this information to users simultaneously is a scenario that is feasible due to the recent wave of data-driven innovation that mobility has been experiencing. In a sanitary emergency, such as the world currently finds itself, a clear picture of how, when and where people move would allow authorities to reorganise public transport in an efficient and safe manner.

The European rail supply industry has been leading the way in acknowledging the importance of streamlined data collection and processing to devise actionable insights. European rail manufacturers have been long calling for multi-stakeholder collaboration within the sector. The setting of a framework for data sharing processes across the mobility chain could be a reliable asset for public transport in the present time of the global health crisis. Collaborative research programmes, such as the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking, would be crucial in the development of the enabling technologies.

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