RAIL 927 - Summer’s coming: is rail ready?

This tweet, from ‘Jamie’ popped up on my Twitter timeline on March 17: “…Train is starting to get busy again. Just like precovid times…”

Anecdotal maybe, but this really caught my eye, especially given that Jamie is a ‘High Speed Intercity driver’. He is a reliable observer of passenger numbers. It was part of an increasing drip-drip of tweets all saying the same thing: “Train today was around 30% busier than last time,” wrote long-term RAIL reader Peter Mugridge, of a recent suburban London trip. 

I know that even a handful of swallows don’t make a summer, but summer IS coming and I hope train operators are planning for at least the prospect of rising passenger numbers?

It would be disastrous to be taken by surprise and fail to cope with a rapid surge in numbers. Let’s remember that last summer, LNER’s off-peak weekday promotion sold 30,000 tickets in a few days. Nearly eight months later and the Bank of England says that those lucky enough to have hung on to their jobs are sitting on an estimated £125 billion in unplanned savings. Our railway needs to have a clear, compelling and eye-catching set of promotions ready to grab as much of that pent-up spending as possible. Or will we allow airlines, coach operators and cruise ships to grab it all?

Tui (Britain’s biggest holiday tour operator) revealed recently that 50% of website bookings are from the over-50s. Coach operator National Express reported some weeks ago that bookings by the 65+ age group had increased by 185% compared with last year - and all this before the successful mass vaccination of these very age groups.

Saga and P&O are relaunching cruise holidays this summer (to vaccinated passengers only - a question that rail charter operators are doubtless also pondering),  even if P&O voyages (the first since April last year) are non-stop out-and-back sailings from Southampton, with captains free to search the seas for the best weather. Cruises to wherever the sun is, all-in from £449.

“While there is uncertainty about holidays abroad, we are delighted to offer our guests the ultimate escape here in the UK with the reassurance that we will take care of everything,” says Paul Ludlow, President of P&O Cruises. Good on him.

Where are the similar quotes from UK train operating companies and rail charter tour operators? Scotland’s franchise (which expires next March - see page 11) specifically required exploitation of the country’s significant tourist market, but we haven’t seen a great deal of activity beyond a bike-friendly DMU for the West Highlands.

There will never be a better time than 2021 to exploit ‘staycation’ breaks to the West Highlands, for example. Scotland’s Railway is sitting on an expensive fleet of Inter7City HSTs it now can’t make full use of. How about capturing some of that £125bn by offering First Class trips to Fort William and Mallaig, with quality dining and a couple of nights in a Fort William hotel? 

Yes, I know the persistent Government messaging that trains are hotbeds of COVID-19 infection was enormously damaging, and there are understandable fears that it has taken root. We need a campaign to stress that providing everyone behaves responsibly, trains are safe. 

But I still believe that rail’s opportunities are significant. I just don’t see much (anything?)  happening. It concerns me because I have a sneaking feeling that the UK might open up faster and sooner than the Government timetable of ‘no earlier than’ June 21 implies. 

Here’s my thinking. A single dose of either AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine is more than 80% effective at preventing hospitalisation in the over-80s. Death rates have been declining consistently at up to 30% a week. From the peak of the second wave, hospitalisations are down 80%, deaths are down 85% and cases down 90%. The number of new infections has been halving each week. 

Vaccinations started only on December 8, but just 100 days later (on this issue’s press day -  March 17), the NHS was poised to give its 25 millionth ‘jab’. By Saturday March 20, the forecast was that half of ALL UK adults (26.5 million) were due to be inoculated. There’s mounting confidence that every UK adult would be ‘jabbed’ not by the end of September (the first target), nor even July (the revised target), but, incredibly, by the end of May. A stupendous achievement by all concerned. 

So, by mid-late April, if all continues to go well and with no vaccine-evading new variant, we could see the vaccination of maybe 35 million adults. If those once terrifying, soaring upwards graphs continue to slope down at 45° and more, then infections, hospitalisations and deaths will sink to extremely low levels. 

The clocks will have ‘gone forward’ and the days will be progressively longer, lighter and even warmer. In these circumstances, Government will find it very difficult to maintain (let alone enforce) restrictions, which could be increasingly disregarded. 

I watch the dash for vaccination, the purchase of yet more vaccine doses, and the advancing of the target for protecting all adults from September to July to May, and my sense is that the Government knows and understands all this. Even if it isn’t saying so. 

The Prime Minister is now constrained by his own rhetoric about ending restrictions “no earlier than June 21”. The pressure to unlock if the circumstances I outline here come to pass will be intense - not least from Conservative MPs. Plus, the business and banking community has made clear that if social distancing, even at one metre, persists after June 21, then tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of cafes, restaurants, pubs, hotels and other businesses will never reopen. Our town and city centres will change forever. 

The relevance to the railway is clear. The ‘starting gun’ on operational recovery has already been fired by the touring, cruising, flying and holiday industry - and they are scooping up as much of that £125bn of pent-up savings as they can. Rail must do likewise.

I do hope that despite the important worrying about the whereabouts of Williams and the White Paper, we are not running a terrible risk of missing out. Local and Scottish election purdah now means we will not see anything politically until mid-May - two months away. 

I might be wrong. There may indeed be secret strategy rooms somewhere filled with superb post-pandemic promotions, offers and special fares, just waiting to be unleashed on a population gagging to enjoy the wider world by actually going somewhere! But we must not sit around waiting for Williams. The cruise companies, coach operators and airlines are already hard at work. 

We must not find ourselves swapping horrified glances as we listen to the fading sound of distant hooves….

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