What is our railway for? I don’t think this question is even being asked enough, let alone answered - and that’s hardly surprising given the tectonic plate-shifting upheaval we’ve all been living through.
But, as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic, it’s a question that must be addressed urgently by government and industry - and jointly. Silo thinking will compromise, if not wreck, rail’s future.
There’s still too much denial. Take the Treasury. Pre-pandemic, there was already plenty of evidence that the working week had been changing for years. Fridays were already the new Saturdays - on the East Coast Main Line, I generally found the Great Northern Hotel car park at Peterborough less than half full, as were LNER trains. It was a similar story elsewhere. Transport Focus surveys revealed consistent yearly declines in season ticket sales, while midweek off-peak ticket sales steadily increased. The traditional season ticket deal - you paid for three days of travel and enjoyed five – was already and obviously a burning platform.
Once you’re in the office just three days a week, you don’t need a season ticket, and so off-peak midweek ticket sales surged. COVID turbo-charged this trend - and we do not know what percentage of commuters will return. I’m more optimistic than some and feel that we’ll get back to maybe 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Others say 60%. The straws in the wind are mixed, but in late March, there was a sudden splurge of media reports which gave some clues.
Nationwide Building Society told 13,000 office staff they would be allowed to work from wherever they liked (Financial Times, March 31), after 60% of the company’s employees said they did not wish to go back to the office. However, Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon labelled working from home “an aberration”. Somewhere in the middle, accountants PwC told UK office staff that they will spend up to 60% of the working week in the company’s 20 UK offices and two days working remotely.
Interestingly, on March 25, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak warned: “Workers must be allowed to return to the office or they may “vote with their feet” and quit.” He described working from home as inferior to working physically with colleagues, which encourages “meetings that happen by chance” and “people riffing off each other”.
He added: “You can’t beat the spontaneity, the team building, the culture that you create in a firm or an organisation from people actually spending physical time together.”
Heated agreement here. You cannot be creative on your own. Neither can you enhance personal experience nor develop our next generation of managers. And that’s before we talk about the social ills of WFH. Those advocating permanent WFH most vocally tend to be salaried, with ‘nice houses’, gardens, partners and families, and probably a home office. They are the same chattering class which will crucially decide, how others (who maybe live in small flats, laptop on a kitchen table, 23 floors from the ground) will work.
There are significant business, economic, commercial, personal and social implications which demand careful thought and sufficient national debate. The answers will also go a long way towards answering my question: what are our railways for? In seeking answers, we must challenge traditional assumptions, rather than (like the Treasury with its March fare increase) blithely assume that traditional commuting will fully return. It will not.
A recent tweet by travel expert Mark Smith, who runs the excellent maninseat61 website, caught my eye. It was the results of a survey into what travelling times that passengers across Europe would be happy with, before they’d choose air over rail.
The ‘received wisdom’ has always been three hours. After that, people automatically choose air. No longer. This survey revealed that 37% of European adults would accept travel times beyond five hours. Nearly a quarter (23%) said they would even be happy with seven hours on a train, in preference to a flight. There are significant differences between countries: in Poland, more than half (53%) would be happy at more than five hours, compared with only 25% in Germany. Roughly 10% said ‘didn’t know’, all of which means there really is all to play for.
Mark Smith: “These figures do not surprise me because it reflects what I already know from running seat61.com. The old three-hour assumption is being stretched to five hours for many reasons, but principally to avoid the airport experience, plus concerns about carbon emissions and climate change.
“The idea of people travelling to Italy and Spain by rail from the UK is not new to me at all - they already know all this in Europe. Paris to Milan is seven hours - and they fill the trains.”
Mark raised an interesting question: “Does Eurostar even know how many of its passengers start north of London, or travel beyond Paris?”
Just as the post-pandemic railway offers the UK a potentially brand new rail market (longer-distance 2-3 days a week commuting), so the stretching of the long-held three-hour doctrine offers an equally intriguing set of possibilities regarding UK/Eurostar integrated ridership - especially with the East/West Coast and Midland Main Lines?
Suggest to Midlands folk that they might go on holiday by rail, not Ryanair, and they might scoff - but that’s probably because their rail impressions are driven by their jam-packed commutes? Who’d want to do that for seven hours?!
Says Mark: “But once you’ve tried it and you know what it’s like - if we get it right - they’ll want to do it again. Especially once they know they can be reliably connected online and can chill with wine, read, eat, sleep or watch a movie. They’re cool with it.”
I think Mark’s right, subject to two conditions. Firstly, that UK railways ‘get it right’ in pricing and service, and also that WiFi connections are solid and fast. Rail could win every time, compared with airport car parks, shuttle buses, cramped aircraft seating, the nightmare of checking in, security, endless corridors…
But nothing positive can happen until Government publishes Keith Williams’ long-awaited report and sanctions the setting up of what Keith described at our Rail Recovery Conference as a new ‘Operational mind’. This would most likely involve a rebooted and reconfigured Network Rail.
There really is no Plan B and the longer Government procrastinates, the longer it will be before that new ‘operating mind’ (just like the vaccine task force before it) can deliver the success that Government so badly needs.
As Williams said at the end of his RRC speech: “We need to now get on with it.”
We really do.