New government statistics have revealed that rail passengers numbers have passed a major milestone. The Department for Transport in London says that the recovery to levels before the pandemic was reached in February of this year. Numbers appear to be at, or just over, one hundred per cent of pre-Covid levels on most days.
The recovery of passenger numbers comes as welcome news to the industry in the UK. Recovery across the timetable appears to be supported by changing patterns of travel. Sections of the workforce have adapted to remote working and flexible schedules, resulting in a shift away from traditional commuting patterns. This has led to a more even distribution of demand across the day, which has made it easier for train operators to manage capacity and reduce overcrowding.
Commuter lifestyle may not yet be dead
The Department for Transport has published figures showing that national rail passenger numbers have reached over 100 per cent of pre-Covid levels for the first time since March 2020 – when the UK went into lockdown for the first time and the passenger rail network was suspended. From Friday 10 February, passenger numbers on the national network hit or exceeded 100 per cent five days in a row, and on Wednesday 22 February 103 per cent was recorded.
According to these government sources, this means that passenger numbers have doubled in just over a year, with the Department for Transport data showing that since the start of 2023 rail customers have been returning not just on weekends and in the middle days of the working week, but also on Mondays and Fridays. This suggests that the shift in travel patterns may not be as profound as previously believed. Claims that the ‘nine-to-five’ working week lifestyle is dead, may be premature.
Second highest level of patronage … ever
“These are amazing figures, and ones that everyone in rail should take pride in”, said Darren Caplan, the Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association, the representative body of the UK rail supply community. “To reach 103 per cent of pre-Covid passenger levels barely a year on from pandemic rules being relaxed is an amazing achievement. It shows that many people are returning to their previous routines of working, visiting friends and family, and enjoying leisure and hospitality.” The remote working revolution has perhaps been over-reported too, with ‘hybrid-workers’ increasingly spending more time in the workplace.
It is of note that the figures are a comparison with March 2020. That represents the cusp of the second highest level of patronage in UK rail history. The figure was only ever exceeded by the ridership of the early 1950s, when the options for long distance travel were confined almost exclusively to the railways, car ownership was much lower, and the railway network was far more widespread than it is today. The recovery is in spite of a long-running series of industrial disputes, which have impacted on the railway industry and suppressed ridership. It is possible that the real level of recovery is higher still.
Lasting benefit from positive statistics
There may not be such delight from the chief financial officers around the network. While more people are travelling – they appear to be more savvy about how much they are paying. British rail fares are famously expensive, but they are also famously open to discounting. More people have woken up to the wide range of cheaper fares available if passengers are prepared to flex their arrangements. Off peak times and cheaper routings are commonplace. Furthermore, if there is a counter argument to the resilience of the ‘nine-to-five’ lifestyle, it may be that traditional season ticket sales have dropped significantly.
“We are hearing that passenger revenues are hitting ninety per cent”, says Caplan. That is a post-Covid high, but less than might be expected, given the numbers quoted. However, Caplan sees a lasting benefit from these positive statistics. “Our members again urge the UK Government not to take its foot off the pedal of rail investment. The UK will clearly need more rail capacity both now and in the future, as the numbers using rail go up. Investing in rail also supports thousands of jobs, and billions of pounds of gross value added. It can help the Government with its levelling-up and decarbonisation agendas”, he concluded.