Tyne and Wear Metro boss Tobyn Hughes has issued a plea for people to start using trains and buses again, insisting there is “plenty of space on board” and that services are “as Covid-secure as they can possibly be”.
Passenger numbers on public transport have collapsed during the coronavirus crisis, dropping to just 5% of normal levels at the height of lockdown, and operators have needed government bailouts to keep services running.
Mr Hughes told a meeting of Newcastle’s City Futures Board that, while welcoming news that cycling had increased by 50% in recent months, he worried that the number of cars on the region’s roads was now also growing “quite fast”.
There are fears that, if more people continue to drive rather than go back to public transport due to public health concerns, then it could lead to congestion and air pollution becoming an even greater problem for the region than it was before the pandemic hit.
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Mr Hughes, Metro operator Nexus’ director general, said: “Road use is going up far more quickly than public transport use and we need to be mindful and work together to make sure that we don’t end up in a place where there is more road-based congestion than when we started.
“Some of that is down to people’s reluctance to use public transport at the moment. I think we have to be honest and say there have been a lot of mixed messages in the public domain about public transport.
“Public transport, I have to say, is very safe. Transport operators are going to huge lengths to make sure bus, rail, and Metro services are as Covid-secure as they can possibly be.
“We have a fantastic public transport network in this city and we should make sure people have the confidence to use it.”
According to latest figures, Metro passenger numbers still stand at only around one third of normal levels.
In the earlier stages of the pandemic people were told to only use public transport for essential journeys, but that stance has been relaxed and anyone is now able to travel.
Face coverings are required on public transport, something Metro bosses say 95% of passengers have been complying with, and new guidance that came into force on Friday also mandates they be worn in transport hubs.
Hand sanitiser points have also been installed at some Metro stations as well as new signage and queueing systems, while trains are also being treated with hospital-grade cleaning fluid.
Mr Hughes added: “The message from me in the here and now is that we want people to get around and be active as much as it is safe to do.
“They should always think about walking and cycling as their first choice if they are able to do so, and not everybody is for a variety of reasons.
“But if they can’t then they should think very carefully about public transport as their next choice.
“Timetables are restored to pre-Covid levels or very close to them during the working day, there is plenty of space on board Metro trains and buses and people should use them.
“Only as a last resort should people be thinking about road-based private car transportation.”