The latest ORR figures on rail usage are surprisingly good because the railway suffers from brakes on progress. Here are five of them

Rail usage is up 14% year-on-year

Industry, politicians, and civil servants will doubtless be taking some quiet satisfaction from the upward trend in rail usage reported by the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road.

In the latest quarter where we have figures, for July to September 2023, a total of 397 million rail passenger journeys were recorded in Great Britain. This is a 14% increase on the 350 million journeys in the same quarter in the previous year. There were 1,496 million journeys in the year to September 30, 2023 – a 21% increase on the 1,238 million journeys made in the previous 12-month period.

And as Passenger Transport reported last month, the latest ORR report shows fares income for 2022/23 surging from £6.4bn to £8.6bn.

Quiet satisfaction is perhaps too modest a reaction. For reasons I set out below, the increases are in fact surprisingly good and the conclusion I draw from the figures is that there is huge potential, not simply to recover to the pre-Covid position but to sail past that. Indeed, LNER for example has already achieved this. 4.2 million journeys in 2020/21 became 23.4 million in 2022/23, the highest figure ever and that is without adding in the numbers using the East Coast open access operators.

Surprisingly good because the railway suffers from a number of brakes on progress that can only serve to deter passengers. If government and industry can only release these brakes, the potential for vibrant growth can be set free. So what are these brakes? I have identified five.

Avanti, CrossCountry, and Northern cancelled more trains in 2023 than during the pandemic in 2020, despite running fewer services overall

1. Industrial action

Industrial action, and the consequent cancellation of services, and disrupted and overcrowded journeys when trains do run. There were 29 days last year when industrial action took place, around one in every 12 days. While the RMT disputes seem to be close to resolution, there has been a hardening of attitude within ASLEF, and of course, while management can cover some RMT roles on strike days, when ASLEF withdraw their labour, no trains run.

Sadly, I see no prospect of the ASLEF dispute being settled this side of a general election. It may be that the union believes it can hold out and get a better deal from an incoming Labour government. That is far from certain.

The present government has in fact worsened industrial relations by forcing on to the statute book minimum service levels which they paint as a method to ensure an adequate timetable can operate on strike days, but is really intended to make strike action ineffective.

Preventing a worker from withdrawing his or her labour is a pretty drastic step in a democracy, but leaving aside the ethics of this, it is doubtful if it will work. Can you really force someone at metaphorical gunpoint to turn up for work, and get them to work normally?

The reality is that the railway, like many industries, operates on goodwill. That is in short supply at the moment. It was noticeable that some operators like Thameslink and Northern had to severely cut their New Year’s Eve services as their employees simply decided they did not want to work overtime, and wanted the evening off instead. The fact that over the years many train operators have relied on overtime from their employees as a cheaper way of running services rather than training new staff makes the industry particularly vulnerable now.

Avanti, CrossCountry, and Northern cancelled more trains in 2023 than during the pandemic in 2020, despite running fewer services overall.

It is a disgrace that King’s Cross, Euston and Paddington were all closed on Christmas Eve

2. Engineering works

These have to be undertaken, of course, but when is the industry going to adjust to the new patterns of travel on the network which have seen leisure travel increase and commuter traffic decrease? It is commercially inept on many lines to still be undertaking works on Saturdays, Sundays, and holiday times.

It is a disgrace that King’s Cross, Euston and Paddington were all closed on Christmas Eve. The industry has a massive opportunity to attract passengers on such occasions, but instead shuts stations.

Given that there is now a great deal of home working, it would in most cases make sense to carry out works on Mondays or Tuesdays, and in January and February rather than over the holiday period. I know that both Network Rail and GBRTT have been giving consideration to this issue for some time, but where are the results?

Moreover, engineering works seem to be increasing in frequency and duration. On the Tube network in particular, there seems barely a weekend when some line or part of line is not closed, a situation that was not the case 10 years ago. Can we be convinced that the industry is using the best up-to-date equipment and best techniques to minimise the time taken for such works?

Since a very unfortunate overrun of works one New Year about 10 years ago which badly affected services into Liverpool Street for some days after services were due to resume, the industry has been risk averse, building in extra time for possessions so not to overrun. But that means that there are many more hours when trains could run but do not. Would it not be better all round to accept that, say, 2 or 3% of possessions will overrun if this means shorter and fewer possessions overall, more trains and fewer rail replacement buses?

The situation is also not helped by train operators running buses when the railway line is actually available. I have identified a number of occasions when Southern has run rail replacement buses from Brighton and Lewes to Three Bridges when the line was actually available from the roughly midway point of Haywards Heath either south or north of the station. Rail operators should understand their passengers want to be on trains, not buses, and alternative arrangements should operate for the convenience of passengers, not for rail planners.

On New Year’s Eve, a flood in a tunnel near Ebbsfleet meant no Eurostar services ran out of or into England, at huge inconvenience to thousands of people. Why could trains not have run to and from the mothballed Ashford from where the line into France was available? I accept that that would have been logistically challenging but did anyone even assess that, or was Eurostar’s attitude one of c’est la vie?



There are plenty of people beavering away on this … so why has progress been so slow and so incremental?

3. Fares and ticketing

We are supposed to be grateful that rail fares are to rise in March “only” by 4.9%, and that after a whopping rise last March of 5.9%. Yes, it could have been worse, but contrast that increase with the freeze on fuel duty that has been in place since 2011. Indeed, motorists are currently benefiting from a “temporary” cut to even that frozen figure. Moreover, given the prime minister’s well-known dislike of trains and his enthusiasm for cars (and of course private jets and helicopters) as witnessed in his highly regressive so-called Plan for Drivers, it is a brave person who will bet against a further “temporary” reduction in fuel duty in this year’s election budget on March 6.

Beyond that, when are we going to see rapid action to reform the fares and ticketing system that everyone accepts is sub-optimal, and which the recent detailed report from Campaign for Better Transport laid bare? It is very clear that extending pay-as-you-go, rolling out single pricing, and integrating rail, bus and tram ticketing can bring substantial benefits, not least an uplift in passenger numbers. Oyster when first introduced in London brought about an immediate 4% increase in numbers.

There are plenty of people beavering away on this – in the Department for Transport and GBRTT in particular – so why has progress been so slow and so incremental? Virtually everyone agrees on the direction of travel so can we can get on with it please?

When I asked the ORR about engagement with GBR, I was told the ORR had a railway to run and little time to spend on theoreticals

4. Legislative structure

Here is another case where there is broad unanimity on the direction of travel, except perhaps in the PM’s train-hating No 10. How else to explain the bewildering failure to introduce the very short Bill to get GBR up and running properly? The industry needs some certainty on the architecture of the railway and is not getting it. Rather than reach a consensus across the political parties on the way forward, as in this case is perfectly possible, the government is instead leaving a blank piece of paper for the incoming government, and who knows what will be written on that?

In the meantime, the industry treads water. When I asked the ORR about engagement with GBR, I was told the ORR had a railway to run and little time to spend on theoreticals.

And while Network Rail has made some progress in rationalising costs and improving delivery, there is still a long way to go. Project Speed is not yet up to speed. Even the totemic and much vaunted Northumberland line between Newcastle and Ashington is not yet open, and is now unlikely to be open before the general election. Does it really have to take so many years to convert an existing freight line to passenger service?

Then of course there is the calamity that is HS2, the cancellation of the vast bulk of what was planned paints a picture of railway planning that is a national embarrassment. No amount of redirecting HS2 money to mend potholes in north London can make up for that. Network North London.

It is exasperating when the operators cannot sometimes get even the basics right

5. Information

It is exasperating when the operators cannot sometimes get even the basics right. My daughter had the misfortune to try to travel by train from London to Inverness in the week after Christmas when Storm Gerrit struck. It is entirely understandable that train services were severely disrupted but why, when she alighted in Edinburgh, was she told, both by National Rail Enquiries and by Scotrail staff, that she should take a train to Stirling where she could catch a connecting service to Inverness? It must already have been very clear that no trains would be able to run north of Stirling that day.

The diligent Roger French, in a recent blog, drew attention to the fact that on December 10, the departure board at St Pancras bore the message that “there are currently no Thameslink departures”. There were indeed none from the normal A and B platforms due to engineering works between there and London Bridge, but services north were running from the East Midlands platforms 1 to 4. This sort of thing is simply inexcusable.

Meanwhile, there is of course no shortage of pointless announcements about inspecting safety cards, not using e-scooters (four times in eight minutes at Victoria while I waited for a circle line train), and the incessant and moronic “see it, say it, sorted”.

Brakes on progress indeed. It is great that passenger numbers and farebox income are up. Just think what could be achieved if the brakes were released.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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