NS has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, both from an operational and a financial perspective. We were confronted with a dramatic decline in passenger numbers and in the use of our door-to-door services and the shops and services at our stations. The public transport sector has taken a range of measures to keep the travel industry safe, both for our passengers and our staff. Ever since the pandemic struck, one objective has continued to guide all our efforts: to keep the Netherlands moving.
Timetable: flexible adjustments
In March, during the first days of the COVID-19 crisis, we developed a basic timetable in an extremely short period of time. This enabled us to serve all stations in the country with two trains an hour in both directions, allowing doctors, nurses and other people in crucial professions to continue commuting by train. At the same time, the lean timetable ensured that enough NS employees remained available for train services even amid high levels of absenteeism due to illness or COVID-19 symptoms.
From the beginning of June we scaled up operations whenever necessary, with due regard for the existing COVID-19 measures. Starting 19 October, we gradually scaled down the timetable again, to 90% of our regular capacity. At the end of August, NS and other public transport companies, local authorities and provinces made timetabling agreements with universities, institutions for higher professional and vocational education and secondary schools to avoid daily peaks in student travel. These agreements will remain in force until August 2021.
International train travel
Effective mid-March, international train services from the Netherlands to Germany, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland switched to a very limited timetable. Again, the objective was to continue services for passengers in crucial professions and for repatriation purposes. During this period, NS maintained sixteen daily services between Rotterdam and Antwerp and four daily services between Amsterdam and Frankfurt, with one service extending to Basel. At the beginning of June the international timetable was resumed, with IC Brussels, IC Berlin, ICE services and regional cross-border routes to Belgium all returning back to normal. Thalys and Eurostar maintained one daily train to Paris and London, and are planning to further scale up services in 2021. The number of Thalys and Eurostar tickets sold (-75% and -85% respectively) remained far below pre-COVID-19 figures. Both Eurostar and Thalys suffered huge financial losses due to the ongoing crisis, causing severe pressure on their passenger services.
From discouraging passengers to winning them back
During the first months of the COVID-19 crisis we were forced to do the last thing a carrier would want to do: asking the public not to travel unless strictly necessary. The government encouraged people to work from home; schools, universities and higher education institutions closed their doors and leisure travel was declared undesirable from mid-March.
Right from the start of the crisis, NS took a lenient attitude towards requests from passengers – both consumers and business travellers – to cancel, suspend or modify their season tickets. To further limit crowding, NS temporarily discontinued ticket formats that are meant to make train travel more attractive, such as joint journey discounts and elective days.
On 11 November 2020, NS launched the Treinwijzer (Train Indicator). Passengers who register their journey online are given an idea of how crowded the train will be, and are warned if their chosen train is cancelled or likely to be more crowded than expected. In this way, the Treinwijzer helps passengers decide when to travel if they want to avoid a crowded train.
Surveys: less travel after COVID-19
NS and Delft University of Technology conducted four NS Panel surveys, starting in April 2020. According to the December survey among 23,202 passengers, one in six expected to travel less frequently by train after the COVID-19 crisis. Passengers expect to be working from home more often or have bought an alternative means of transport (such as a car). Commuters expect to be travelling to and from work on three days a week, on average, when the crisis is over. Of all commuters in the survey, 8% even think they will no longer travel to work at all. This is significant, as commuters account for half of our total income. If all commuters decide to work from home on just one day a week, this will reduce our turnover by 10%. Of all leisure travellers in the survey, around 75% expect to resume their former travel behaviour after the crisis.
Among commuters, Tuesdays and Thursdays look set to become the most popular travel days once things have returned to normal. NS faces the challenge of preventing overcrowding on such peak days. We attach great importance, therefore, to agreements with companies, educational institutions and other organisations on measures to prevent commuters and students all travelling on the same days.