Which way for railways?

Paul Salveson on more leisure travel and halting HS2

I joined in with an interesting stakeholder conference for one of our train companies based ‘up North’ the other day. It was a useful discussion and a few important points emerged. Research done by the rail industry is suggesting that long-term commuter travel is going to be down by about 40% of the pre-pandemic levels. Business travel will be down less, but a still thumping 25% reduction. The classic commuting trip, the five-days-a-week slog on overcrowded trains, will probably never return as people work from home either all the time or at least a few days a week. Instead of long journeys to business meetings in London, many firms will continue to organise meetings online.

On the other hand, leisure travel is likely to grow by around 10% and this is borne out by the current surge in rail travel to seaside and country destinations. Train companies are already ready – in some areas, running more trains on Saturdays than weekdays. At the same time, rail freight is doing pretty well. It suffered less from the pandemic than passenger operations though business was down. Freight is growing steadily once more, and if the Government is serious about reducing carbon emissions it has a great future.

The implications of all this are huge, turning on its head so many assumptions that have governed thinking in the rail industry for the last forty years or more. The main drivers of rail development in the past have been commuting and business travel, with leisure coming generally a poor third and freight fitting in as best it can. Weekends were the time for doing engineering work and foisting people onto rail replacement buses.

The methodologies underpinning ‘demand forecasting’ – which strongly influences investment decisions – have been based largely on commuting and business travel. These approaches are now discredited. Growth is likely to be in leisure – both relatively short but also long-term journeys.

We need to build an entirely new approach to forecasting demand for rail travel in which leisure travel plays a much bigger part, and move away from the traditional obsession with commuting and business travel.

Another aspect of this emphasis on leisure is around the journey itself. The conventional wisdom within the industry has been to push for faster and faster end-to-end journey times. Yet leisure travellers are less bothered about super-fast journeys and more concerned with avoiding changes, reliability, good information, getting a seat and general comfort.

So that means putting in more stops (within reason) on many services and not obsessing about knocking a few minutes off the end-to-end journey.

And while I’m on this particular tack, what does all this mean for HS2? If it ever had any justification, it doesn’t any more. It is a classic example of pre-Covid thinking whose justification (if there ever was one) has been blown off the tracks by the pandemic. Far fewer long distance trips, less justification for very high speeds – and much money to go around.

Will it be scrapped as a result? No, don’t think so. It will carry on swallowing up resources that are desperately needed to support the regional and InterCity networks. That said, I can’t see it getting beyond Crewe, and for all that Leeds might huff and puff, I don’t think it will get there either. By the time we realise what a huge white elephant HS2 is we will have squandered eye-wateringly huge sums of money that could have been put to far better use.

Labour should break with the cross-party consensus and call for HS2 to be curtailed. Having some extra capacity south of Rugby would be useful (though I wouldn’t say essential) and building as far as the south Midlands would save face. Much could be done with existing infrastructure, not least improving capacity into Birmingham, bypassing Stafford and remodelling Crewe. There’s a lot more, including trans-Pennine electrification, gauge widening so higher containers can be shipped from the North East to the Mersey, and some line re-openings. The new east-west line from Oxford to Cambridge is going ahead, but bizarrely as a diesel-operated railway. This is total madness and rail professionals can’t fathom the stupidity of the Government persisting in using this outdated and highly polluting form of traction.

Rail is a seven-days-a-week service and the outdated idea that people don’t – or shouldn’t – travel on Sundays has to change. Network Rail is very much aware of this and the alternatives are more night working during the week.

The rail network is now effectively under state ownership and control. Network Rail is a state-owned company accountable to the secretary of state. Train operators are either in public ownership or operating to tightly-determined contracts enforced by the Department for Transport. So let’s see what this new model can deliver; the challenges are huge.

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