Leisure travel by rail after the pandemic

Figure 1 Public transport use in the UK

It is becoming clear that the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on public transport in the UK is very significant, and is resulting in a major reduction in rail and bus use that looks as if it will persist at least in the short and medium term and also possibly into the long term future. Figure 1, compiled from DfT statistics, shows the seven-day average use of rail and bus over the course of the pandemic, up to 29/9/2020. It can be seen that rail and tube use seems to be plateauing at around 40% of the pre-pandemic values, and bus use at around 60%. The same trend can be seen in other cities around Europe – see figure 2 from the Financial Times, which shows general public transport use. London does however seem to have a greater reduction than other capital cities.

Figure 2 Public transport use in major European cities

The trends shown on figures 1 and 2 do however mask considerable geographical and service type variations. There is evidence that the use of public transport in larger cities has fallen more sharply than in smaller conurbations, and also that travel patterns are changing. Network Rail Chairman Peter Hendy made the following comment at a recent online conference

“It is clear that people’s methodology of working has changed. Many jobs can’t be done from home, but there are lots of people who can work from home and have learned something they didn’t know before and are learning to live in a different way. Leisure travel has returned quicker than work travel. One of the scenarios that we might want to have in our heads is that we might be going back to a situation like the 1950s, when maximum traffic on the railway was on peak summer Saturdays and not in  what we now regard as normal peak hours.”

My personal experience would tend to confirm this – I, and others in my family, have recently travelled on quite heavily loaded services with passengers heading for leisure destinations in the north of England. This trend is also clear in the data from the excellent Centre for Cities website for Birmingham and Bournemouth, shown in figures 3 and 4 below. These show a variety of metrics that indicate how these places are recovering. It is clear that activity in Birmingham, a major commuter hub, remains well below pre-pandemic values, whilst activity in Bournemouth, at least in part a leisure resort, has in general increased.

Figure 3 Centre for Cities data for Birmingham

Figure 4 Centre for Cities data for Bournemouth

In this post I want to consider briefly how the rail network might take into account this leisure market. In pre-nationalisation days and the early days of BR, this market was catered for by excursion traffic from the major centres of population to a range of coastal resorts. In retrospect this involved a very inefficient use of rolling stock, with the carriages that were used for these excursions often having no other use other than at summer weekends. It also required extensive siding space at the resorts themselves, as the trains often waited there for a significant time before returning. After the demise of such traffic, the strategy (if one can use that word) seems to have been to provide an essentially local service on the routes to resorts, with connections to the main line, and to simply accept overcrowding oh high days and holidays. By its very nature such a strategy was self-limiting in terms of passenger numbers – the experience of trying to crowd onto a two-coach multiple unit with a family and luggage is not one that is willingly repeated if there is another way to travel.

So is there a way in which such traffic can be catered for in a more passenger friendly way? I would suggest there is, but it requires significant changes to the structure of the industry to make it effective. Firstly, it seems to me that there are a number of basic passenger requirements.

  • Passengers wish to go from their point of departure to their destination without changing trains – particularly those travelling with family and luggage.
  • There should be significant space for luggage, so that aisles and vestibules are not blocked.
  • There should be no overcrowding.

On a basic level these points suggest that excursion traffic and local traffic should be kept separate, with the former running directly from departure to destination. With regard to the first bullet point, considering the Birmingham / Bournmouth route as an example, trains should pick up at a small number of points in the West Midlands conurbation (say Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Dudley, Birmingham New Street and Coventry) and run non-stop to Poole and Bournemouth. The normal intermediate stops of Banbury, Oxford and Reading (amongst others), delightful as these places are, are simply of no interest to leisure travellers. The second point suggest that luggage facilities should be provided, perhaps in a separate coach with luggage tagged, loaded and unloaded by station staff. And the third point suggest that such trains should have compulsory reservations and those without reservations not allowed to board.

How could such an operation be achieved, making efficient use of rolling stock? I would suggest that there is already sufficient rolling stock available, particularly with the increasing use of relatively high speed, hybrid multiple units that are not restricted by the extent of electrification. However, a national approach needs to be taken, such that some rolling stock of this type is used for local, regional and  commuter services for much of the year, is transferred to excursion traffic during the summer when the local and regional demand is lowest. This requires a national approach to stock utilisation that cuts across TOC / Operating Unit boundaries, and also a similar integrated approach to timetabling and service provision. One could thus envisage for such services route 9 or 10 coach  hybrid multiple units, that would normally work on local and regional services, operating as excursion stock in the summer, both on weekdays and at weekends. Luggage facilities could be provided in one coach that has fold down seating, which is a perfectly viable concept. Passengers would deposit and collect their luggage at stations, which would require a suitable luggage tracking system and appropriate staffing. Reservations would need to be made before hand and systems put in place at stations for allowing only those with such reservations to access the platform as the train arrives.

The above is a suggestion for only one type of leisure traffic – the medium to long distance excursion market. There are many other types of leisure traffic that need to be catered for and a variety of methods need to be developed. The important point is that such traffic cuts across the neat geographic and organisational boundaries of the current system and require a national approach to stock utilisation, timetabling, station organisation etc. The current organisation of the network, with the multiple internal boundaries and barriers between regions and operating units, would simply not allow such services to be developed. Perhaps a nationwide “Leisure Travel” operating unit needs to be considered? Something for the still slumbering “Guiding mind” to think about?

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