September 23, 2021
 

Off track

Improvements in Britain’s rail services have been gathering pace but how will investment be sustained after such a sharp drop in passengers, asks Dave Richardson

Near-empty station car parks and forecourts; shuttered shops and catering outlets; closed waiting rooms and customer lounges; almost deserted trains where the few passengers on board eye new arrivals with suspicion, if not fear. Welcome (or otherwise) to rail travel in Covid-19 Britain.

This was how it looked in the summer, but how it will look as autumn progresses is anyone’s guess. Government surveys indicated that rail travel had slumped to a mere 4% of the April 2019 figure in April this year, and had not recovered beyond 34% by August. Car traffic, however, was back to 90% of 2019 levels.

The mass avoidance of rail travel could be a problem not just for potential passengers and the environment, but a giant headache for taxpayers too.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has revealed that the cost of subsidising passenger train operators was £2.279 billion in the 13 weeks from March 1-June 27 (nearly £760 million a month) – and that’s just in England. Add in subsidies paid by the Scottish and Welsh governments and by local authorities responsible for rail travel in their areas and the monthly bill is around £1 billion.

The DfT effectively re-nationalised passenger train operators in March, under “Emergency Measures Agreements” due to continue until September 20, but likely to be renewed. Franchise agreements were replaced by management contracts, this being one of the proposals made by the 2019 Williams Report into the rail industry.

The report was never published and has largely been overtaken by events, but management contracts are likely to remain the norm.

What passengers want to know is whether this is good for them, or whether train operators will lose interest and the will to invest. Incentives are likely to be built into new agreements, but in the harsh recession now under way the days of major investment in rail could be over while fares will again rise in January.

The more immediate concern of rail users is whether it is safe to travel by rail, and how to minimise the risks. Many office workers look set to remain working from home, at least for some of the time, with asset management group Carlyle one company that is telling its staff to avoid public transport when offices reopen in September.

Train operators have introduced various cleaning protocols to reassure passengers, while one-way systems are in operation at major stations and hand sanitiser is widely available. Some operators employ on-board staff to challenge anyone not wearing a face covering, but the biggest reassurance is the sheer amount of space available with so few travelling. When that changes, how safe will passengers feel?

The Business Travel Association (BTA) has conducted fam trips for TMC staff on Avanti West Coast and LNER, the two biggest players in business travel. Chief Executive Clive Wratten says: “There has been a real shift from fear of the mode of transport being a risk to what happens at your destination and if trains become crowded again.

“The Government has been very supportive of the rail industry, and it wouldn’t be a good political move not to continue to invest. Rail is very appealing because of the sustainability message.”

Fears that the cost of subsidising rail could lead to service cuts in future – trains are back to around 85% of the pre-Covid timetable – are acknowledged by Black Box Partnership, a rail consultant working with TMCs. But the announcement of a £589 million package in July to improve trans-Pennine services is seen as confirmation that railways are a priority.

“We don’t see pre-Covid timetables being reintroduced across the board, especially on commuter routes where the downturn in passengers has been very significant. Flexible season tickets are needed”

Associate Ground/Rail Services, Nick Bamford, says: “Clearly there is a risk that cutbacks will happen, but not across the board. The Government has said it wants to invest its way out of the financial crisis, but there could be a contradiction between the DfT’s plans and what the Treasury says is affordable.

“We don’t see pre-Covid timetables being reintroduced across the board, especially on commuter routes where the downturn in passengers has been very significant. Flexible season tickets are needed.”

Bamford says what business travellers want most is reassurance around cleanliness and minimising direct contact during travel, flexibility to change plans at short notice without undue penalty, and reliability of service. Reliability generally has increased with fewer trains running, but some of the flexibility over tickets evident at the start of the crisis has been rolled back.

Some operators were still insisting on reserved seats or reserved space on particular trains at the time of writing, although switching to alternative services was rarely a problem.

Business travellers are also looking for a simplified fares system and better access to e-ticketing, the latter made all the more important as people try to avoid station ticket machines or ticket offices.

The BTA’s Wratten says: “Only about 30% of rail tickets are e-tickets, compared to 100% of air tickets. There are infrastructure issues, but the main problem is that some online booking tools can’t handle e-ticketing by rail. We then need to move on to multi-modal e-ticketing with airlines and other ground transport.”

Click Travel – one of the biggest rail bookers among TMCs – wants to see e-ticketing become the norm. Head of Sales and Implementation, Vicki Williams, says: “We would love to see this become extended to all routes and fares, and ultimately help to make the traveller experience smooth and completely consistent. We expect the popularity of trains to rise due to their contactless nature in the current pandemic.

“We’re also expecting passengers to be looking for incentives and reassurance from train operators and the Government so that they can travel again with confidence, knowing that the new safety measures – including hand sanitiser stations, additional cleaning protocols and plans to avoid overcrowding – are in place.”

Will this autumn see a return to confidence in rail, assuming people are confident to book or feel the need to travel at all?

“Train operators realise they won’t get back to the passenger levels they had before in the medium term, and that they can’t go back to what they offered previously,” says Black Box’s Nick Bamford.

“Old working practices are being questioned and will change for good. But we don’t know what the ‘new normal’ will look like, or how long it will take.”

New trains roll out

It’s ironic that as several operators introduce new trains to increase capacity and enhance onboard services, there are far fewer passengers to reap the benefits.

Northern England is the focus for many improvements, with Northern Rail introducing 101 new electric and diesel trains and TransPennine Express introducing 44 new trains offering business class standards for the first time.

The biggest train renewal programme of all is under way at Greater Anglia, operator of the London-Norwich inter-city route, Stansted Express and most local services in the region. New electric or bimodal (electric/diesel) trains represent a total investment of £1.4 billion.

The first of South Western’s new £1 billion fleet, Arterio, is due to be introduced later this year on the Reading line. As with nearly all new trains, Wi-Fi and charging points for mobiles and laptops come as standard.

The East Coast route out of London King’s Cross to the North East and Scotland has new Azuma trains, increasing capacity and bringing modest improvements in journey time. Great Western is benefiting following delayed completion of electrification on the London-Cardiff route, with Hitachi-built bimodal trains now operating all long-distance inter-city services. ScotRail, Merseyrail, Caledonian Sleeper, Hull Trains and West Midlands also have new trains.

In total, it is estimated that train operators will bring into service over 1,000 new carriages in 2020 alone, and 8,000 by 2025 – on top of 2,500 already delivered since 2017. The question now is where the passengers will come from to fill these new trains, and enable operators to make a profit.