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The government must back UK train travel, or risk a long-term retreat into cars
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The government must back UK train travel, or risk a long-term retreat into cars

A traffic jam.


There’s no doubt that the UK’s railways have been hit hard by the pandemic. Recent figuresAccording to the Office of Rail and Road, there was a significant drop in passenger traffic between April 2020 and March 2021. Numbers at London Waterloo, which was once a busy station, fell by 86% during that period. While numbers at Stratford, in east London, (the UK’s busiest station) fell by 67%.

The number of passengers grew over the past decade. summer of 2021But the latest government statistics indicate that rail use was only 65-70% above pre-pandemic levels. This contrasts with steady growth in rail usage seen before COVID, with journeys increasing by a whopping doubling between 1994-2018. With the announcement of the omicronAlternative, some people might shift back to public transport.

A new approach to funding rail is necessary until train use recovers. The UK government and the devolved administrations need to provide more funding and support rail services and investments. Otherwise, we will see increased car use, increased carbon emissions, and increased congestion.

Other countries are already revising their rail policies – for example the new German government coalition is committedAustrian government introduced a policy to encourage rail investment over road. “climate ticket”This allows you to use all public transport.

Travel after a pandemic

The problem for the UK is that commuters are not coming back – at least not five days a week. The hybrid work option, which allows you to work from home, is now well-established. One study showedNearly 90% of those who worked from home during lockdowns wanted the opportunity to continue doing so, at least for a portion of the time. These people were concentrated in London and the south east and in more highly paid office jobs in city centres – precisely the people who have been the backbone of rail commuting in the past.

One estimate suggests that business travel will drop by 20%, while others suggest a reduction of 20%. researchPeople are worried about traveling on crowded trains or buses with others, and have switched to cars instead.government statisticsCar traffic is almost back to prepandemic levels, according to data.

A traffic jam.
If train services are cut it’s likely that traffic jams will continue to rise.

Even before COVID the British model of funding and running the railways was under threat. Privatisation has been highly controversial – criticsThey have voiced concern about the high costs and poor service and argued for reform. The UK government, which was stricken by poor timetabling problems and other problems in 2018, recognized the need to reform. The Williams-Shapps plan for rail proposed major restructuring, with a new “Great British Railways” contracting companies to run services, managing the infrastructure and conducting long-term planning.

Although this restructuring might reduce the cost of running the railways it is unlikely that it will replace lost revenue.

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There are many choices that the government could make. One is to cut services below pre-pandemic levels. There have been, for instance, cuts in services. consultationSouth Western Railways has a statement about the future of South Western Railways services, stating that demand is not returning so services must be reduced. This led to a furious backlashPassenger. Some immediate cutsThe Bristol to London Waterloo via Salisbury service has been announced.

Another recent decision by the government is to reduce the plans for high-speed rail in the north of England. This was again supported by major public opposition. The government hasOne leg of its high speed rail link (HS2) was abandoned

Even the promised £96bn of rail investment is subject to “individual schemes proceeding subject to future approval at key gateways to ensure ongoing control of costs and value for money”. The lines that were scrapped already would have allowed for more passengers and freight. It is not yet clear if the new plans will allow for growth.

Rail fares will rise as well. The government has maintained above-inflation fare increases (1%) more to come. This contrasts with the ongoing freezing of fuel duty for road transportation. cutting air passenger dutyOn domestic flights

Climate change risk

Transport is the biggest sourceof UK carbon emissions. Researchers argueWhat is needed is to reduce the mileage people drive and transition to zero emission cars. So reducing demand for road transportIt is crucial.

Although most travel is very short distance, there are still many places to go. small number of longer journeysA large amount of carbon emissions from surface transport are caused by rail. Rail can play an important role in providing an alternative to car use for these longer journeys – pre-pandemic it accounted for16% of journeys more than 50 miles and 25% between 250 and 350 mile.

But this will require the UK government – especially the treasury – to take a new approach, supporting railways, and public transport generally, as the backbone for a zero carbon transport network. Current policies that reduce rail services, increase fares, and create uncertainty about investment will be detrimental to the environment and economy.


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