Unmasking the divisions in UK rail on ‘Freedom Day’

Covid restrictions and Freedom Day make compliance difficult in the UK. A journey across Great Britain may not be so great if you don’t have the correct protocols in place. With the government in London, and the devolved administrations in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh all setting out their own rules, there are some puzzling times as of today. Oh, and there are different rules in different parts of England too.

With Covid measures and transport policies in various parts of the United Kingdom all different, and some parts of Great Britain proving more cautious than others, where does the railway industry stand on Freedom Day? The magic Monday for England may be somewhat different for the other nations of the UK.

Some confusion

The UK starts this week with England declaring “Freedom Day”. Despite a huge increase in reported Covid infections, most restrictions are removed from today (Monday 19 July). So, with the prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer and the health minister all ironically forced into self-isolation overt the weekend, where does that leave the travelling public? In a state of some confusion is the answer.

Early breakfast in Ryde, late lunch in Edinburgh – it can be done, but when to wear your mask? (AppleMaps)

It’s possible to make a journey from the Isle of Wight to the capitals of England and Scotland, and all between an early breakfast and a late lunch, but what will that require of the determined traveller? Well, assuming you have made it from Newport, the island capital, and not forgotten your ticket to ride from Ryde, you’ll have already been able to choose whether or not to wear your face mask on the bus connection and Island Line train to the ferry terminal. The fifteen minutes on each mode of transport is long enough to trigger a ‘ping’ from the National Health Service app, if a fellow traveller tests positive at a later date. 525,000 people in England were told to self-isolate last week – including the very top of the government. That’s around one per cent of the entire population.

Personal choice

The ‘pingdemic’ is taking its toll. Some ferry operators have warned that services across the Solent could soon be impacted by staff shortages. On-deck seats are the summer way to sail, and favoured for Covid security. If you decide to sit in the open, it’s mask-free from today. Arrival – by ferry, catamaran or hovercraft – the train to London should be waiting. Ryde – Portsmouth is the most popular passenger crossing, with ferries also weaving between cargo operations at Southampton, and Lymington providing a connection to the west of the island.

It does get hot during summer on the London Underground. (WikiCommons – Chris McKenna)

The government guidance is now very much personal choice, so you can choose to leave your mask in your pocket for the 90 minutes to Waterloo or Victoria. Given that this is forecast to be the hottest week of the year, that may be a welcome relaxation. Not so on arrival in the capital. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has exercised his right to vary the conditions of carriage on the Underground. So it is masks back on for the twenty-minute transfer to refurbished King’s Cross. The oldest metro system in the world is famously not air conditioned, and given that our hypothetical journey is at peak time, that could be an uncomfortable leg.

Hopefully, all eleven lines will be running. Last week, the historic Metropolitan Line was suspended due to Covid-related staff shortages, and the District and Circle Lines were severely restricted.

Border crossing

Technically, the East Coast Main Line run up to Edinburgh should be relaxed. Train managers will no longer be obliged to remind passengers that masks are mandatory. Well, for most of the journey, anyway. With both transport and public health issues devolved to the governments in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, there is technically a border crossing for our train, just north of the iconic River Tweed.

Journey’s end, Edinburgh – just in time for a late lunch (Network Rail)

The Scottish government has not relaxed Covid restrictions to nearly the same extent as the administration in London. So, strictly, it is masks back on north of Berwick. Passengers will also still be required to wear masks on Edinburgh’s buses and trams. Well, it’s usually cooler in Scotland anyway.

Masks back on

The anomaly of London Underground (and Overground) is that, in some instances, passengers will transfer from across an island platform from a national operator to a Transport for London service and be required to observe different Covid measures.

Other metro services – notably in Manchester – have also continued to mandate the wearing of face coverings. Manchester’s outspoken metropolitan mayor, Andy Burnham, stood firm with his London counterpart on the issue. Ironically, Burnham was recently involved in an acrimonious dispute with the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, when travel between Scotland and parts of Greater Manchester was banned on the back of an outbreak of Covid in the area. There was perhaps some hubris, when Scotland climbed to the top of the infection rate among the four nations. That mask may have good reason to come out of the pocket – just in time to take it off for a well-deserved late lunch.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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