The pandemic situation took another downward turn at the end of 2020 as restrictions tightened following a surge in cases. A new strain of the virus added to the sense of alarm. However, the start of vaccine rollout programmes in the final weeks of December hints at the beginning of the end of the pandemic and brighter days ahead.

For rail operators this cannot come soon enough. Scenes of empty stations and sparsely loaded trains became all too common in 2020 as people were encouraged to stay at home. While Lingegård says SJ is riding out the storm due to the operator’s strong financial position, the situation for other operators is not so good.

As Ms Dyan Crowther, CEO of HS1 reveals, Eurostar, the international high-speed operator, has fallen between the cracks. The operator is exempt from the Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements (ERMAs) which are propping up Britain’s franchise operators. Eurostar was reporting loadings of 5% and only operating four services per day as IRJ went to press. This is simply not sustainable.

Mr Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), says the association’s projection of a €40bn hit for European public transport operators in 2020 made in June looks a conservative estimate at the end of the year. The final figure is likely to be much higher and Mezghani says the financial implications means some operators may not survive.

While the short-term prospects look difficult, many operators retain ambitious plans to relaunch or provide new services in 2021; Sweden’s Snälltåget has begun selling tickets for Stockholm - Malmö - Copenhagen - Hamburg - Berlin cross-border overnight trains, which it will launch in March. RegioJet, another open-access operator, is also planning an expansion of its overnight services while Leo Express is eyeing entry into the German market.

However, the future prospect of these operators and those which have benefitted from government support depend on the return of passengers. This should be priority number one for the railway in 2021.

The first step must be to convince the public that using public transport is safe. Despite great efforts to improve cleaning and to introduce social distancing, misconceptions persist.

Ms Katy Taylor, chief strategy and customer officer at GoAhead, told the IT Trans conference on December 3, that a survey conducted by the company revealed that 84% of respondents who have used a public transport service said they felt safe while travelling. However, just 34% of those who have not used a train or bus since the start of the pandemic said they were happy to do so.

Operators must be prepared to be flexible. They must also embrace a customer-friendly strategy.

Clearly, getting people to take that first journey is crucial to getting them to return again and again.

Several studies also provide evidence that trains are no more dangerous an environment than anywhere else. A Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) study reported in August that the risk of contracting Covid-19 onboard a train was 1 in 11,000 journeys. This was based on an hour-long journey with no social distancing and where masks were not worn. Wearing masks is similarly proven to reduce the risk of infection. Operators should be shouting such messages from the rooftops as they urge their passengers to come back.

New ticketing platforms could also help to reinforce this message. For example, Mr Laurent Mezzini of Systra says Mobility as a Service (MaaS) could inform prospective passengers of how busy a specific service is, which could encourage them to use it instead of taking the car.

The relative success of working from home is likely to prove one of the legacies of the pandemic. As Crowther notes, studies she has seen indicate that the need to travel to the office every day is unlikely to return. Other studies project a return to previous passenger numbers by 2025.

However, as those of us who have worked or attended a conference remotely in the past nine months can attest, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. People are likely to still use trains to travel to the office after the pandemic but only on two or three days a week. As a result, rail company business models need to adjust to reflect this change. Crowther says the current season ticket model is “dead” and asked whether it could be adjusted to encourage travel at weekends.

Whatever the approach, operators must be prepared to be flexible. They must also embrace a customer-friendly strategy. The British government’s policy to increase rail fares by 2.6% from March is the wrong approach.

Any PR strategy encouraging passengers to return should also emphasise rail’s green credentials. Lingegård says a growing desire to use the train due to environmental concerns is encouraging for SJ and it is this trend that the European Union is banking on to deliver modal shift to rail, a key component of its Green Deal programme.

The EU’s Year of Rail initiative is an exciting prospect for the sector. It has the potential to offer a roadmap for the future development of rail, which combined with the objectives of the European Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, could help the sector finally overcome the issues of poor connectivity that have held it back for decades.

However, such unprecedented goodwill will only remain if rail is still relevant and worthy of investment. The declines of 2020 must only be a blip, not the start of new trends. For this to happen, passengers must return.