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Railways face uncertain future as Covid-19 lockdown forces people in Kent to stay home

During the first wave of the pandemic passenger numbers on the nation's railways plummeted to levels last seen in the Victorian era, and with the nation now plunged back into lockdown it could be some time before our trains are busy once more.

With the railways facing a once-in-a-generation crisis, reporter Rhys Griffiths visited the county's five least-used stations in one day to examine the state of the network in 2021. Here's how he got on.

Bekesbourne railway station near Canterbury
Bekesbourne railway station near Canterbury

Please note: Rhys' trip was carried out in December while Kent was observing Tier 3 restrictions.

Having once been among the ranks of the 'super-commuters' - travelling four hours or more a day to and from the office - I could probably be forgiven for giving the train the swerve whenever possible.

But no, I love travelling by rail. A long-distance train ride, taking in the scenery and perhaps enjoying a little tipple en route, is something I actively enjoy. Except normally there is the prize of a destination awaiting at the other end.

But as I walk to Folkestone West in the winter darkness, I know I have a long day of travelling ahead, and that in around 10 or so hours I will finally arrive. Exactly where I started.

Still, if you'll indulge the cod-philosophy for moment, life is a journey, not a destination, and I set out hoping that this somewhat circuitous voyage will allow me to reveal some of the challenges facing the railways as a result of the pandemic, and hopefully give me the chance to meet some of the lonely souls who travel via our quietest stations across the county.

Folkestone West to Bekesbourne

My journey starts on the 7.19am towards Ramsgate, which I board as the sun begins to rise over a very quiet station. As I step aboard I take a quick glance up and down the platform, seeing only four or five others hop onto what is an eight-coach affair, which will hug the coastline towards Dover Priory where I will change for my first stop of the day at Bekesbourne.

Beltring railway station near Paddock Wood
Beltring railway station near Paddock Wood

For those of us who are veterans of the rush hour commute, it can still be a slightly disconcerting feeling to have almost half a carriage to one's self during what would have been - in the 'old normal' - peak time for workers, school children and students to be packing the trains.

Instead, the ebbing gloom of the dawn outside and the sparseness of fellow passengers inside gave the feeling of the last train of the night rather than a rush hour service.

Those who do not regularly travel on the railways, either pre-Covid or today, may be unaware just how significant the fall in passenger numbers has been since the order to lockdown was given back in March.

Earlier this year the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) revealed that, during the height of the first coronavirus wave, an estimated 35 million journeys were made in the first quarter of 2020/21, April to June.

That may sound like a lot of people moving by rail, but in fact that represented a huge decrease of more than 400 million journeys compared to the same quarter the previous year. With schools closed, people working from home where possible, and much of the economy shut down, demand for rail travel simply collapsed.

And with passenger numbers dramatically down, what was the likelihood I would be able to find other travellers when I stopped off at our five least-used stations. We were about to find out.

Arriving at Bekesbourne, situated on the line between Dover and Canterbury in what a rather faded station sign describes as the 'Valley of Mills and Manors', I note one or two people waiting to board the train which I was hopping off. This seemed promising, I was planning to wait for the 8.39am which, hopefully, might be the train of choice for the few commuters still making their way to desks in the cathedral city.

I had time to kill, so I strode the platforms, traversed the footbridge, and generally took in the country views spilling away to the west of the station, which witnessed 24,474 passenger journeys in 2019/20. There was, however, not another soul to be seen.

Well, I say that, one woman - accompanied by a high-spirited, yappy canine friend - did arrive in the car park adjacent the station, but unfortunately the pair were heading for a nearby workplace rather than the platform which was expecting the London Victoria service any minute.

But my spirits remain optimistic, I had four more opportunities to alight upon a fellow traveller on the path less taken, so I jumped on the train and we headed towards Canterbury.

Bekesbourne to Swale

When I originally conceived of the idea of visiting each of the five least-used stations in Kent, my hope had been that I would convince someone with a link to the railways to meet me at each stop, we would have a chat, get some pictures, and then they'd wave me on my way.

Unfortunately Covid had other ideas, and with the county under Tier 3 restrictions at the time of my journey, it seemed an awful lot of people were unable to venture out since non-essential was strongly discouraged amid the spiralling rates of coronavirus in this part of the world.

However, as journalists are considered key workers (no laughing at the back) I was free to embark on my quest as planned, and thankfully Paul Prentice from Southeastern - which operates the majority of train services in Kent - was able to keep me company as I made my way to Swale, the very quietest of our quiet stations.

Joining me as I passed through Canterbury East en route to a change of trains at Sittingbourne, Paul talked me through what has been quite the year for the train company as it has grappled with keeping the service going in the midst of a pandemic.

"It's had a dramatic effect on the railway," he told me as we trundled past wintry views of the surrounding countryside between Canterbury and Faversham.

Paul Prentice from Southeastern joined our reporter during his journey around the county
Paul Prentice from Southeastern joined our reporter during his journey around the county

"In the first few weeks following the lockdown we saw passenger numbers drop to around 4% of what they would normally be, and obviously that impact became very obvious on all of the trains we were running, with passenger numbers much lower and stations much quieter than they would normally be.

"But throughout all of the last eight months we have sought to run a service throughout, we have had to adapt the timetable at times, we have had to make some changes to adapt to circumstances.

"It has been dramatic, but we have kept the service going throughout, our aim has been to reassure people that travelling by train is safe, it's still one of the safest forms of transport, and the message we have been wanting to get across throughout is that rail travel is safe."

It's hard not to see where the adaptations have taken place. For those of us who have travelled by train during the pandemic, they now almost seem normal, but for those who have not been on the railway since the first lockdown it might come as something of a surprise to see trains and stations plastered with public health messages, seats marked out of use to encourage distancing, and vending machines now stocking hand sanitiser alongside the crisps and chocolate.

All of theses measures - alongside increased cleaning of rolling stock and stations - have been designed to reassure people that they can travel with confidence, even in the depths of such a huge health crisis.

I asked Paul about levels of compliance with some of the new rules - for example the wearing of face masks on trains and at stations - which were not universally popular when they were first brought in earlier this year.

"Obviously it was challenge to begin with," he said. "We found that there was about 90% compliance initially, with people wearing face coverings on board the train, but we've been doing a pilot with the British Transport Police and our sister company Govia Thameslink Railway to increase the adherence to the rules and we are up to 98%.

"People were reminded what the rules were, and in a tiny, tiny number of cases people were asked politely to leave trains, and I think we're really pleased with how that pilot has gone, because when we see each other wearing face coverings we are all reassured, aren't we?"

We looked ahead to the coming year, and I was keen to know what changes might be in store to encourage people back to the railways once the vaccination is more widespread and lockdown can be relaxed. Of particular interest for many Kent commuters is the question of flexible ticketing for those who may no longer be required to make a five-days-a-week commute to offices the centre of London.

Paul was unable to make any big reveal of a shake-up to ticketing, but he encouraged passengers to watch this space in the new year.

He said: "We recognise that people's travel patterns have changed, and it was a long-term trend actually. People were shifting the balance from working in the office in, say, central London to working from home maybe one or two days a week.

"That balance has changed, how permanent that change is is the big question.

"What we have done is we have put our proposals in to the Department for Transport in July for flexible season ticketing, as did all of the other train companies, so those proposals are currently with government for consideration.

"The thing that I think everyone has acknowledged is the ticketing system that we have got dates back to pre-privatisation, dates back to British Rail times, and even that was also a development of something that existed for 40 or 50 years, so it is overdue for change.

"We want to see change happen and we are very keen to work with government to make that happen. We don't yet have a timescale, but when we have news we will certainly be sharing it."

I bid Paul farewell at Sittingbourne, and it is on to Swale, which with just 8,044 passenger journeys in 2019/20 is comfortably the least-used station on the network in Kent.

Located on the edge of the Swale channel, just before the line crosses the Kingsferry Bridge en route for Sheerness, the station is nothing but a single, curving platform served by a single track.

Although Swale station is rarely used itself, the trains shuttling back and forth along the line between Sheerness and Sittingbourne are among the busiest I encounter throughout the day - demonstrating the importance of this link for those travelling from the Isle of Sheppey to 'the mainland'.

The Sheerness line has also become a success story for the Kent Community Rail Partnership (KCRP), which looks after the branch line and uses it as a way of engaging with local youngsters on the Isle.

I had hoped to meet Andy Place, the KCRP's engagement officer, at Swale, but instead I picked up the phone to talk about the work they are doing on some of our lesser-used train lines and hear why these rail links can be a lifeline for our communities.

"It's vital for them," he said of the Sheerness line. "A lot of the students we worked with at Sheppey College hadn't left the island at all, they can't afford cars, a lot of them, so their only route off the island is by train.

"The problem they have got is access to the train station, if you live in Leysdown you have got to make your own way to Sheerness to get the train. There are buses, but the timetable and the buses don't always coincide.

"I know in the past they have wanted a morning and evening service catching up with the high-speed train, so it all links in, and I know they wanted additional services because of the demand."

With passenger numbers collapsing during the pandemic, there will be a role for community rail partnerships to play when the time comes to encourage people to return to the rails safely.

"That is going to be our biggest challenge," Andy told me. "I guess our prime aim is 'can we increase passenger numbers' and with all the things that we do we are inevitably trying to get more people onto the train.

"I know numbers dipped drastically during Covid, and even now they are probably only 20% of what they were, so we have got a huge task to try and get people back on the trains. We have got to make them feel safe to travel.

"When it is safe to do so, we have got some ideas of how we might do that. It will be doing events on the train to encourage people to come back on there, to engage with communities at stations, so I think there is going to be a lot of hard work to do and it's going to be a challenge that all the partnerships across the country face."

The Partnership's work with Sheppey College was recently recognised at the national Community Rail Network Awards, with its 'A Chance to Shine' project taking first place in the Involving Children and Young People category.

Sheppey College principal Alan Salter said: "Our students and local community are the heart of our college, and we like to ensure we benefit them as much as possible.

"It is so nice to see our students work benefitting the local community and even nicer to see their physical work on display at local train stations. It gives our students a real sense of pride when they are able to see their finished work out in the world, it also gives them an opportunity to build their skills and confidence while they are preparing for the industry."

Sheppey College students with a bench they built for Queenborough railway station on the Sheerness line
Sheppey College students with a bench they built for Queenborough railway station on the Sheerness line

Swale to Beltring (via Kemsing)

Jumping aboard the (surprisingly busy) train back to Sittingbourne from Swale, I set off for Kemsing, which in 2019/20 saw 19,276 passenger journeys.

I arrived at a deserted station just as it began to rain, and a quick scan of the platforms revealed not a soul to be seen. There was, however, another train heading down the arrow-straight track in the opposite direction. So, reasoning that 30 minutes standing in the rain on my own would likely be a futile gesture, I hot-footed it over the bridge and re-planned my route to Beltring.

With three stations now ticked off, and a grand total of zero passengers encountered at those stops, I was starting grow a little concerned that fellow travellers would elude me as I criss-crossed the county.

A change of trains at Paddock Wood provided the opportunity for some conversation, at what seemed a veritable metropolis compared to my designated destinations. Although you should try telling that to the Londoner who was complaining vociferously about the need to wait a whole 40 minutes for his next train. Tube frequencies, these are not.

Timetabling has in fact been one of the challenges of the pandemic for the railway planners, with National Rail drawing up seven different timetables in 2020, all of which were designed from the ground up, matching running times to the performance of trains and the capacity of the tracks.

Chris Denham, senior communications manager at Network Rail, explained that this calibration of the network's capacity to the timetable will have produced a tangible benefit for those who have still be riding the rails during the crisis.

He said: "Despite the challenges we were eventually able to run an incredibly reliable train service - the most reliable service we think has ever been run in Kent - although we were mostly only carrying around 20% of normal passenger numbers.

"Huge efforts have been made to keep people safe, with trains and stations cleaned relentlessly, and we've been so impressed at how many of our passengers have taken up the call to wear masks.

"Our hope for 2021 is that that we will see passenger numbers growing again as the Covid vaccine is rolled out, and that we will be able to keep that incredible level of punctuality going so we welcome them back to a brighter and better railway."

Pulling in at Beltring (bang on time, I hasten to add) I am greeted by a splendid rural vista and a quite pleasingly-kept little station, which witnessed just 13,260 passenger journeys in 2019/20.

Passenger Manuel Candido at Beltring railway station near Paddock Wood
Passenger Manuel Candido at Beltring railway station near Paddock Wood

As expected, I had the place to myself, so I strolled the length of each platform, took a few pictures and consulted Google Maps to get some sense of why exactly anyone might have cause to frequent this rather isolated halt. Handy for the Hop Farm, it appears.

Idling on the platform for my return train to Paddock Wood, it suddenly happened. Strolling into view on the platform opposite was another passenger.

A quick glance at the time, five minutes to spare, so I bolted - notebook in hand and a crazed look upon my face - across the level crossing and towards a chap who looked every bit as surprised by my presence as I was delighted by his.

His name was Manuel Candido, originally from Lisbon, and now living and working in Kent.

"I come to work in East Peckham, at a bakery" the 59-year-old said, gesturing out across the neighbouring fields.

Mark Smith is the Man in Seat 61
Mark Smith is the Man in Seat 61

Asked if he had encountered many other people using the station, he said he sometimes saw two others in the morning, but other than that is was usually deserted.

"I live in East Malling, I get the train from here to New Hythe and then I walk about 20 minutes from there," he said.

Our conversation was brief, constrained by both the impending arrival of our respective trains and the fact that it is remarkably easy to run out of meaningful observations about little-used train stations. We bade each other farewell, and I departed for the homeward leg of my journey. Just the one station left on my list.

Beltring to Snowdown

Half-an-hour alone in the dark at Snowdown - 10,334 passenger journeys, second behind only to Swale - gave me plenty of time to ponder the tumultuous times facing the railways as a result of the pandemic.

The possibility that we may be in lockdown one year after the first shut down began last March now appears very real, and the rail industry is just one of many being shaken by the pandemic crisis.

'We need a season ticket that allows people to work flexibly...'

Habits are hard to form, but easy to break. Even with the vaccine being rolled out, and the promise of normality returning gradually later in 2021, will the paying public return in anything like the numbers we knew pre-Covid?

I resolved to speak to Mark Smith, who runs the wonderful online railway guide The Man in Seat 61, to ask for a passenger's take on the impact of the coronavirus and what 2021 and beyond will hold.

"To use a word that's been overworked over the last year, it's been unprecedented," he said.

"We have never had such a massive drop in the number of people using the railways, they are still essential to get key workers around and into work and so forth, but in terms of leisure travel there's virtually none at the moment of course, because we are in lockdown, and trains are carrying a tiny fraction of what they normally would do.

"I think passengers will come back, firstly because when it comes to visiting friends and relations, a Zoom meeting doesn't really cut it, and going on holiday by Zoom doesn't cut it either. And I think even for business, the person who goes to see you in person will get the contract.

"The real change is going to come with the commuter market, the people who used to travel to work on a classic monthly or annual season ticket five days a week, the genie is out of the bottle and they have probably discovered how nice it is to work from home for one, two, three days a week."

Mr Smith says the industry must quickly adapt to new patterns of behaviour if travel for work is to rebound in the coming months and years.

"I think we've got to the stage now that the old traditional weekly, monthly, annual season tickets are no longer fit for purpose," he said.

"That's going to be a real issue for the railways, they have got to do something but they are hamstrung by fares regulation and the Department for Transport.

"The classic season ticket is no longer what people need, we need a season ticket that allows people to work flexibly, that gives people a discount for multiple trips, but doesn't expect everyone to go in every day of the week.

Beltring railway station near Paddock Wood
Beltring railway station near Paddock Wood

"That's a nettle that has got to be grasped. It involves both the operators and the Department for Transport, and so far very little has been happening.

"This isn't coming out of the pandemic solely, this was actually a trend that was happening anyway, the pandemic has really given that a massive boost."

With the nation once again locked down, and ordered to only travel where absolutely necessary, it seems ghostly trains carrying few if any passengers will be trundling back and forth across the county for some time to come.

Southeastern has proudly boasted of regular testing which has failed to uncover any trace of the virus on surfaces at some of its busiest stations. At some of our quieter stations paying customers proved to be similarly elusive.

The pandemic has given a once-in-a-lifetime shock to the railways. The challenge now is to adapt to a world transformed.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice, click here.

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