Rail provides clean mobility and a high level of efficiency worldwide; however, it remains one of the most impacted sectors by COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the implementation of lockdowns through July 2020, passenger volumes decreased by approximately 80% for all national rail services, and freight operations saw their volumes sharply reduced, with an average estimated loss of between 10-15% (UIC).Thus, rail operators must adapt their services in response to the pandemic so passengers and goods and services are handled in a safe and efficient manner.
In order to re-stimulate demand for passenger travel, many railway service providers have increased flexibility for booking and reduced prices for consumers; however, operators have also faced government restrictions to reduce the movement of people between regions, in order to slow infection rates. Thus, the rail transport sector has mandated masks, social distancing and onboard safety measures. (UIC) Furthermore, procedures have been put into place to ensure that employees are able to perform critical functions safely, and protocols have been established to address elevated absenteeism in order to maintain efficient operations.
Due to decreased demand and economic losses, rail operators on a global scale are requiring government bailouts. For example, the Indonesian government offered an economic recovery program and bailout for PT Kereta Api Indonesia, the major operator of public railways in Indonesia, worth around USD 250 million. (Bisnis Indonesia) In response to a 47% drop in passenger rail activity in the first nine months of 2020, Brazil’s Senate approved a USD 750 million bailout of the transport sector, including subways and railways. This package of support will provide rail operators with needed resources to maintain critical services.(BNamericas)
Rail also plays a crucial role in the distribution of essential commodities during the COVID-19 pandemic, including food and health-related resources such as medicine, personal protective equipment, and vaccines. In China, medical staff from across the country travelled by train to Wuhan (the epicenter of the outbreak) to provide medical aid, showing that rail fills a critical gap in supplying essential workers throughout the economy with safe and efficient transport. (UIC) Urban rail is also an area of renewed focus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rail has been a focal sector in India for the pursuit of a more mobilised, efficient and fair economy. Approximately USD 520,000 has been spent in Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu on metro rail systems, with a healthy and human-centric approach to transport.(The Economic Times)
This broad range of policy responses demonstrates that rail is considered a focal point for recovery from COVID-19, as well as a critical component in the fight against climate change, which persists amidst the urgency of the pandemic. Thus, it is crucial that the rail sector continues to provide human connectivity, economic activity, and low-carbon transport throughout the world. This can be enabled by continued investment in new rail infrastructure projects, advanced rail vehicles, and groundbreaking rail research to help build a new mobility paradigm in the wake of COVID-19.
This section was developed by SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport with contribution from International Union of Railways (UIC).