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I have no fear of returning to the office. The hand sanitiser at the door, the FT’s cleaning and the limit on numbers in the building would keep me safe. It’s getting to the office that I fear.

I never moaned about the London Underground. I knew where to stand to avoid the crush. I read the whole way. Wherever I am, I try to use public transport to connect with the city and its people.

But at the moment I am staying away from the people and they are staying away from me. Although Tube occupancy has picked up since the UK lockdown eased, passenger numbers at the end of July were still down 76 per cent on the same time last year. The New York subway has registered almost identical falls. In Tokyo, the Metro has seen passenger numbers increase from their low point in April, but they were still down 36 per cent in the fourth week of July.

Line chart showing the fall in New York public transport travellers since lockdown

Subways have always had the potential to make the everyday scary. While most journeys are uneventful, anything sudden and untoward reminds you that you are constrained, if not trapped underground, a long way from the safety of the streets. Film-makers have long known how to exploit this. In the 1967 movie The Incident, two louts intimidate a late-night New York subway’s passengers, trapping them by jamming the door with a shoe. In The Taking of Pelham 123, a gang of extortionists hijack a subway train and start shooting passengers when the money they have demanded is slow to arrive.

Real-life killers understand the underground train’s potential for terror, too. There was the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo Metro and the bombings of the London Tube in 2005. The thought of being infected with Covid-19 is enough to keep underground travellers at home.

The financial consequences are dire for the subway companies, which are trying to persuade commuters that their journeys are safe. Transport for London, which runs the Tube, points to preliminary research by Imperial College in June which found that samples taken from ticket machines and handrails at three stations were free from coronavirus. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is responsible for New York’s subway and trains, is replacing subway air filters every 36 days rather than every 72.

Both the London Underground and the New York subway are piloting the use of ultraviolet light to disinfect stations and trains. A trial of ultraviolet on the escalator handrails at the Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3 station from May has gone so well that TfL is planning to solicit bids to roll it out more widely.

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The Tokyo Metro has been spraying carriages with a fine silver-based compound, using silver’s antimicrobial properties to keep the virus off surfaces, Reuters reported last month. Everywhere, underground railways have increased their cleaning.

Some of the most interesting projects aim to tell passengers how congested trains are. The Paris Metro is crowdsourcing, asking commuters to report via an app how packed their carriages are. The MTA says its Long Island Rail Road is providing real-time information on how crowded trains are by measuring each carriage’s payload.

In the end, I expect two things will drive us back to the underground trains: our employers insisting we have to return to the office on pain of losing our jobs, or the virus no longer being a threat. As the FT is relaxed about us working from home and the vaccine is some way off, I will leave my Tube pass in the drawer for now. I know some do not have that luxury.

Follow Michael on Twitter @Skapinker or email him at michael.skapinker@ft.com

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