In the media

Coronavirus will change rail travel a long time into the future

Joacim Sundell

By Joacim Sundell


18 May 2020

This article first appeared in NyTeknik

For Swedes to choose environmentally friendly transport alternatives such as the railway, continued improvements in punctuality, the development of digital services and increased collaboration between industry stakeholders are necessary, write Johan Warenlöv and Joacim Sundell, experts in rail and transport at PA Consulting.

In debate and public discussion, the railway is most often described from a negative point of view and positive headlines are rarely published. The delays on today's railway in Sweden are relatively evenly distributed between problems with infrastructure, vehicles and external influences from people who are illegally on and around the tracks.

The railway has historically had a relatively poor reputation among the public, which probably dates from the last decades of the 20th century when punctuality failed to reach stable, high levels. But how bad is the railway today? With more than 90 percent punctuality in 2019, the railway is actually significantly better than its reputation suggests. The problem is that this is not enough. In Germany, for example, punctuality is about 94 percent. According to the Swedish Transport Agency, punctuality, alongside road safety, is the most important factor for Swedish travellers.

To increase confidence in the railway, the Swedish Transport Administration and industry players need to work to continue to improve punctuality and develop new additional digital services such as:

  • More precise positioning of where the train is located.

  • Better information about disruption.

  • Automatic ticket purchases when boarding.

  • Support for passengers in making their travel choices, given that, for example, it may become more important for them to control the time of the day they choose to travel so they can sit in a less crowded train compartment.

In addition, services that make it easier and easier to travel such as door-to-door solutions or seamless interchanges should also be designed. Another suggestion is to offer opportunities to get  more space on board by, for example, providing access to the neighbouring seat (if this is not offered free then it could be the price of child or young person’s ticket) for some time to come. This is comparable to the options on flights where IATA has assumed that the middle seat will not be occupied in the future.

More in-depth collaboration through industry organisations and forums needs to be developed. It has previously been difficult enough to get all the stakeholders together round the same table. Both public and private sectors need to let go of their pride and focus on problem solving instead.

In the rail system, this is particularly clear when traffic stops and the consequences ripple out into the system unless the problems are resolved quickly. One of the reasons is simply that the tracks are too full. But no existing or potential traveller cares about who made the mistake. If all the parties can focus on the solution, the reputation of the railway can be enhanced.

Initiatives such as cooperation between the Swedish Transport Administration, SL and MTR to improve commuter train traffic, new reimbursement rules to compensate  individual passengers, as well as the quality charges introduced to counteract delays and emergency cancelled departures are good examples of confidence building measures.

Many people talk about a time after the pandemic when we may travel significantly less and more people will use digital opportunities to work from home. Such changes will require the development of the Swedish railways to attract travellers.

Although decreased travel to work has been an effect of the corona pandemic, an increase in leisure train travel is a likely scenario for some time to come. For many Swedes, travel destinations in Sweden could be an alternative to travelling abroad even when the travel restrictions are lifted and the railways are important to support that.

With attractive offers such as credits and time-limited rebates ​​linked to cancelled trains during the spring of 2020,  perhaps new travel patterns among Swedes may begin to take shape.

Coronavirus will change travel habits for a long time to come. As one of several environmentally friendly alternatives, the railway can see conditions that will help it succeed. But that assumes that they are able to adapt to new travel patterns and to prioritise:

  • Maintaining a focus on punctuality 
  • More digital services that use analysis and packaging of travel data, among other things, to help reduce load peaks and spread travel during the day.
  • Dynamic pricing and collaboration between different industry players to provide more attractive offers that meet individual priorities  such as reduced congestion in train compartments.

Johan Warenlöv is a rail expert at PA Consulting and Joacim Sundell is a transport expert at PA Consulting

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