Posted 4th January 2021 | No Comments

Monday essay: brave new world

The railway is being forced to evolve by a virus, but Sim Harris suggests that the process of change is not necessarily an unwelcome one.

We start 2021 with a new sense of uncertainty. As these words are written, sharper Covid restrictions seem to be imminent, and railway travel is probably set to be discouraged further.

Arrangements to make the railway ends meet already exist, but it does seem at least possible that the  £2 billion which has been set aside to support the passenger railway for the financial year starting in April may not be enough, given that the annual bill for keeping the passenger operators going until March will be £8 billion.

But this is (we hope) a relatively short term problem. In the longer term, it is tempting to speculate what effects the pandemic will have on the future railway.

In some ways, we have had some hints. The gloomy predictions that the number of people travelling by train will be permanently lower, perhaps substantially, do not seem to have been justified by the brief, if partial recovery which occurred in the late summer. As we report in the January print edition of Railnews, DfT figures show that passenger totals reached 43 per cent of ‘normal’ in the first week of September. That was a quick rise, considering that the country had only recently come out of a severe lockdown which had applied since March.

It will be interesting to see the results of a recovery which lasts for at least six months. Some people will change their ways and go on working from home for at least part of the time, without doubt, but it is said that this trend was starting to be apparent before anyone mentioned Covid, which is why there have been discussions about part-time season tickets for several years – in fact, too many years. The industry has dragged its feet over the issue for an inexcusably long time, but it is impossible to say whether this apparent reluctance should be laid at the door of the train operators or the Department for Transport.

Whatever the truth might be, reluctance will no longer do. It may be possible to overstate the effects of changes in working habits, and indeed a modest ‘flattening’ of the sharpest peaks would probably be beneficial to the railway’s finances, but there are limits.

In the meantime, we have the Williams Review, but once again what should have been a ‘root and branch’ examination of the railway industry has retreated into the Whitehall shadows – perhaps it has been baffled by the pace of change in recent times, and not least by the abolition of passenger rail franchises which Williams is said to have been recommending.

So our brave new world will have a number of elements, but whatever happens we are confident that, one way or the other, the trains will keep running.

Railways are due to play a vital part in the new, greener world of the future. Nothing – not even a virus – can be allowed to block the tracks.

The next print edition of Railnews, RN287, will be published on 14 January. That edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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