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Has the need for visible public transport staff risen during Covid-19?

Has the need for staff on public transport risen during the coronavirus pandemic? That’s the big questions we’ve been asking passengers this week.

Over the years Transport Focus has carried out a huge amount of research on passenger aspirations and expectations. Throughout this there is a consistent message coming through about staff – put simply, passengers like and value having staff around. Our work on buses shows that the driver is often, quite literally, the face of the company. They often act as the main source of information on things like fares and their behaviour can make the difference between an average journey and a memorable one. Rail passengers also value staff, looking to them for information and help, especially during disruption.

Our most recent report from our Transport User Community shows that these views haven’t changed during the pandemic. If anything, Covid-19 has added a new dimension to their role, one of reassuring passengers that rail and bus is safe to use. This does not have to mean direct intervention, sometimes the mere presence of staff can reassure.

 “I believe staff do play a big role in the future safety of the rail network. Without staff I would not, and do not, feel totally safe. They’re a human deterrent and reassure passengers, and offer advice if needed.” Female, 64, Wales

However, passengers didn’t always feel staff were as visible as they would have wanted. On rail they reported things like ticket checks sometimes falling by the wayside, staff not always walking through the train or tackling cases where social distancing and rules on face masks were not being observed. Similarly on buses, passengers talked of drivers not always challenging people over not wearing a face covering.

This is not a case of ‘having a go’ at staff. The research shows that people understand how difficult it is for those in the front line.

 “I feel sorry for bus drivers as they can’t tell everyone at every stop to wear a mask – it just isn’t fair because they are far too open to abuse. I don’t know what the solution is here.” Female, 65, South East.

Passengers wanted staff to do more to encourage people to wear face coverings – in many cases it was felt a ‘nudge’ would be enough – but they did not expect staff to put themselves at risk. Some felt that the police had a bigger role in enforcement – though it was equally recognised that you couldn’t have a police officer everywhere. Our bus community members wondered whether bus drivers needed some help – it being hard enough to drive the bus without having to make sure passengers follow the rules as well. They felt having Covid-marshalls or extra staff, or even police, patrolling the network could help. Examples of this are already appearing with Blackpool Transport rolling out ambassadors at bus stops to support its customers and drivers.

No one is pretending that this is an easy problem to solve, but it’s equally clear that the reassuring presence of staff has never been more important.

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