These were some of the grim headlines from the end of last month as the world began to face up to the medium and long-term economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The IMF projects a global contraction of -3% in 2020, a downgrade of 6.3 percentage points from January 2020, a shock not witnessed since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The -0.1% fall experienced during the 2008 financial crisis right now looks like a walk in the park.
The performance of railway operators around the world mirrors this depressing outlook. As people were urged to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, demand for travel plummeted. Many operators reported ridership falling by over 90% as timetables were redrawn to offer a skeleton service to minimise losses.
Rail freight flows have similarly been affected with the shutdown of many industries hitting operators hard. US combined loadings, usually a barometer of overall economic performance in the United States, were down 9.1% year-on-year in the first 15 weeks of 2020. Total North American rail volumes for the week ending April 11 were down more than 20% year-on-year.
For state-owned passenger operators, with the backing of the public purse, their return to normalcy appears a lot more straightforward than for their private adversaries. The Association of New Rail Entrants (AllRail) warns that its members could lose up to €1bn in revenue by the end of the year. Without state or government support, the association says such losses make these businesses unsustainable and that many were facing bankruptcy by the end of April.
How the recovery plays out remains a big unknown. Will people feel comfortable using public transport? How long will social distancing measures last?
The Austrian government’s intervention to provide Westbahn and Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) with PSO contracts to operate Vienna - Salzburg services until July 7 is welcome. While a thorn in the side of some state-run railways, private operators provide a service valued by millions of passengers each year. They save taxpayers money. And many have made commendable progress in recent years in turning a business where the margins are slim into something increasingly viable. Hopefully more governments will follow suit.
How the recovery plays out remains a big unknown. Will people feel comfortable using public transport? How long will social distancing measures last? And how will staying 2m away from the next person impact how people use stations and trains? Will people resort to the sanctuary of their cars rather than take the risk of using the railway?
China offers an indication of what life might look like.
Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak in the country, gradually began reopening its public transport network on April 8 after a two-month lockdown. Mainline and high-speed services also began stopping in the city once again. But things are not the same.
The use of masks and social distancing is mandatory when using public transport and passage through stations is carefully managed so people entering do not encounter those exiting. To minimise contact, businesses are staggering the time employees spend at the office. Some employers have instructed their staff to avoid public transport altogether. For those who do, frequent temperature testing is the norm. Travellers must also prove they have a clean bill of health before boarding and when onboard a train by scanning a government-sanctioned smartphone app. Anyone found to be infected is forced to self-quarantine. For those wanting to travel further afield, some Chinese cities are requiring people to take nucleic-acid tests to confirm that they are Covid-19-free.
Such strict government control is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. However, until there is a vaccine and until this is widely distributed, it is likely that precautionary measures will remain in place, limiting economic recovery. Mass gatherings now look likely to be banned until at least the autumn - Germany announced on April 15 that it would extend the restriction on all such gatherings until August 31.
But as governments seek to stimulate their economies, infrastructure investment, as it usually is in an economic recession, will be top of the list.
This is good news for rail.
The British government’s decision to issue a notice to proceed with detailed design and construction on HS2 is a shot in the arm for the contractors working on the project. Each is observing strict coronavirus precautionary measures, but this is a long-term project and starting work now means the benefits will trickle into the supply chain much sooner, getting more people back to work.
Equally, Swiss multinational bank UBS predicts environmental, governance and social trends as well as efficiency and convenience will help rail development, particularly high-speed, achieve unprecedented levels of growth post-pandemic. UBS says recent falls in pollution will emphasise the importance of using and investing in rail to both the public and the state.
I like many of you have been working from the sanctuary of my own home these past few weeks. Video calls between colleagues are now the norm. Travel is of course off limits, restricting contact and exposure to possible sources and stories.
Alternative mediums are though emerging to fill the void. With conferences and tradeshows on the backburner, webinars are coming into their own as a medium to relay important messages to audiences potentially spread all over the world. IRJ is among those with the facility to host such presentations, and we encourage those interested in finding out more to get in touch. Business, after all, will and must continue. But how we go about it, looks likely to be quite different for the foreseeable future.