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Commenting on Matt Lovering's article: 'Responding to the challenges of peak rail'

Read the original article in the May print edition of RailReview

Matt Lovering, Teneco Consulting, wrote a great article raising some good questions about the future demand for rail in the UK.  His piece calls on a lot of data and its timeliness is reinforced by the recent collapse of the East Coast franchise – often linked to a fall in passenger numbers – and similar challenges rumoured or reported for TransPennine and Greater Anglia, which have also suffered declining or stagnating passenger numbers.  There is certainly a debate to be had about what is happening and what should be done.  Though I’m not sure that we could say we are investing too much…

Much of rail infrastructure is old, has to be maintained and investment is needed to upgrade and replace worn out assets.  Passenger numbers may have fallen but the system is still over-crowded on many routes and the railway is critical to the economy, especially around London, and seen as a key enabler to growth in the regions.  Matt recognises a number of schemes are likely to have a strong business case for growth – he cites Crossrail 2 as one – and there are many others.  The problem is that we don’t fully understand what is happening with passenger numbers, yet the lead-time for investment is long and this means that any decisions we make now will have consequences far into the future.  The risk is building railways that may not be used or failing to provide the infrastructure our economy desperately needs.

Autonomous vehicles will change travel and Highways England is considering what this means for roads.  They will certainly impact rail also.  Hyperloop offers great opportunity to transform long distance travel which could in turn impact rail and air services.  We don’t know enough yet to decide what role the railway should play or how it might adapt.  To understand more, we need:

  • Better information and insight on travel – We have good data about ticket sales and passenger numbers, but we rely too much on surveys to understand where people travel and when.  Smart ticketing provides the opportunity to understand properly how people use the railway.
  • More flexibility in our fares – There is no doubt that sales of season tickets are falling.  There is also hard evidence that people are working more flexibly and that the season ticket model doesn’t work for them.  But, have these people stopped travelling or have they substituted season tickets for less frequent or off-peak travel?  In his article, Matt flags the need to introduce more innovative fare structures and I strongly agree.  We need fare structures that better reflect the flexible way people want to travel and offer value to those who travel infrequently.  Fare-capping, single-leg pricing and carnets could all make a difference and better meet the needs of modern, flexible workers.  Smart ticketing is again key to this as it enables much greater flexibility and targeting.
  • More flexibility in the system – The infrastructure we build lasts a long time and is difficult to change.  The Digital Railway should change that, providing signalling and controls that can be more easily reconfigured so that the system can be flexed to meet the changing needs of the economy – commuters, leisure travel, freight, urban or inter-city.  In this way, our investments can be adapted and flexed to meet the demands placed upon a 21st century railway.

Trevor Birch is a rail and smart ticketing expert at PA Consulting

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