Siemens, one of the world’s largest train makers, has insisted that mass rail commuting will remain “the backbone of cities” even as the German group confronts the disruption to public transport wrought by coronavirus.
The conglomerate’s train division, Siemens Mobility, suffered a more than 30 per cent drop in orders during the first quarter as government budgets are squeezed by a pandemic that has also sharply reduced the numbers of people travelling on public transport.
As countries in the west follow those in Asia by easing lockdowns, Siemens Mobility, which manufactures and services trains and trams, has introduced a series of measures to reduce the risk of the virus being spread by commuters.
The group has deployed robots to clean carriages, disinfected trains with UVC and used 3D printing to create parts that allow passengers to open doors with their elbows. It is also working on air-filtration solutions, pending guidance from health authorities, and its digital programmes are being used to help customers with contactless ticketing and monitor the occupancy levels of each train.
Sabrina Soussan, co-chief executive of Siemens Mobility, said she was confident that passenger demand would return to pre-coronavirus levels by the second half of 2021, at the latest, and that the market would “continue the long-term growth in the lower single-digit range”.
Mass commuting on trains “will remain the backbone of cities”, she said. Cross-border freight had proved resilient during the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Soussan added.
Rail freight journeys from China to Europe, for example, have increased by more than 40 per cent on an annualised basis between March and May, as air transport capacity was cut by the cancellation of passenger flights, which often carry cargo too.
However, Singapore’s high-speed rail project are among those to have been further delayed by the pandemic, while the group said it also expected a slowdown in Latin America.
But Siemens Mobility, which is due to be restructured after a merger with French rival Alstom was blocked by Brussels last year, said stimulus packages in Europe and the US were stopping many customers from cancelling orders, and that the struggles of the airline industry could end up helping railway operators.
“Energy consumption is lower on trains, and social distancing between seats can be done more profitably than on planes,” Michael Peter, co-chief executive, told the Financial Times.
“The basic mathematics of the rail industry are still intact,” Mr Peter said, despite rail passenger traffic plunging in the past few months. “The global megatrends are still in place. People need to travel to work, people are ageing, people need public transportation.”
The co-chief executives said they hoped coronavirus would speed up the digitisation of train networks, describing a delay to such upgrades as “an absolute tragedy”.
UK rail operator Thameslink is among those using Siemens’ programmes to allow passengers to determine whether the train they want to take is above 15 per cent capacity — the level at which social distancing becomes difficult.
Industry bodies have called for more integration between operators and European countries in the wake of Covid-19, to allow cross-border trip planning from a central portal.
“It would be beneficial for everyone if [a pan-European app] was one of the outcomes,” said Mr Peter. “But I can’t predict this will happen. It is very political.”
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