ScotRail trains at Edinburgh railway station, source: Wikipedia

Scots travelling further but in fewer numbers, except on routes to London

ScotRail trains at Edinburgh railway station2018, Geof Sheppard / Wikimedia Commons

Post-covid, but stuck in the middle of a pandemic of disputes. British passenger numbers have shown recovery in the latest official figures, but there are mixed results, and not all are positive. There are mixed results across the country, with Scotland lagging significantly behind, except on routes to London, where the recovery seems to be complete.

A total of 332 million rail passenger journeys were made in Great Britain in the latest quarter measured, from 1 April to 30 June 2022. This equates to almost 76 per cent of the 437 million journeys in the same quarter three years ago – the last figures available before the pandemic. Right at the end of the measuring period, strike action, specifically by the RMT union on 21, 23 and 25 June, resulted in a substantially reduced service operating on these days, and reduced figures further. There were 1.1 billion journeys made in the year to 30 June 2022. That’s more than double the 535 million made in the previous 12 months.

Recovery from the coronavirus pandemic

The latest official statistics from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) generally compare favourably with the same quarter three years ago (1 April to 30 June 2019). The ORR has conducted a review, in an effort to accurately measure the level of recovery in passenger demand. However, it is still difficult to make direct comparisons, and there are still long-term social changes being evaluated – particularly changed patterns of work which may require less frequent travelling and a converse increase in domestic leisure journeys.

Estimates published by the Department for Transport (DfT) indicate that relative passenger rail usage in Great Britain began April 2022 at around 72 per cent of the equivalent week in 2019, before reaching a peak of 93 per cent in the middle of June. However, industrial action on 21, 23, and 25 June resulted in relative passenger rail usage falling to 48 per cent for the week ending 26 June. A slight difference between ORR figures and those published by the DfT is accounted for by the ORR decision to average season ticket journeys over the entire validity of the ticket, whereas the DfT counts all future journeys associated with a season ticket at the date of purchase.

Passenger journeys by sector and operator

The London and South East sector recorded 227 million journeys between 1 April to 30 June 2022. That’s 75.5 per cent of the 301 million journeys in the same quarter three years ago. However that also includes 24 million journeys made on the new Elizabeth Line in London.

Azuma high-speed trains on East Coast Main Line, source: LNER

Long-distance travel has responded rather better than commuter distances. That points towards a resurgence in leisure travel in the UK, reminding older passengers of busy weekends at major stations. The sector recorded 31 million journeys in the latest quarter, giving it a relative usage of 84.8 per cent. The East Coast Main Line, dominated by the UK government’s shadow company, London North Eastern Railway, actually recorded comparative figures of 106.4 per cent.

Regional services and Scotland remain depressed

Interurban trips, typical of those operated by CrossCountry, recorded 72 million journeys. That’s just 73 per cent of the 98 million journeys recorded three years ago. However, the most concerning of all are the figures returned for Scotland. Even before the pandemic, there had been significant difficulties with punctuality and reliability, and the Scottish government has since stripped the operator, Abellio, of its franchise and taken railway services into public ownership. At 61.4 per cent, ScotRail was the operator with the lowest relative usage across the whole of Great Britain.

Elizabeth Line ridership has helped London figures recover despite declining commuting. Image Flickr / Matt Brown

The best performing East Coast Main Line connects London with Scottish destinations, principally Edinburgh. Ironically, that has helped the poorly performing ScotRail area record higher than average distances travelled per journey. A total of 13.5 billion passenger kilometres were recorded in Great Britain between 1 April and 30 June 2022. This equates to 78.1 per cent of the 17.3 billion kilometres in the same quarter three years ago. Passenger kilometres per journey were 40.8 in the latest quarter, an increase from 39.6 three years ago.

Long term commuting in decline

After several decades of ever-increasing commuting, in numbers, distance and duration, there has been a marked decline. That trend has shown little sign of recovering. External surveying shows that more professionals are turning their backs on the Monday to Friday commute. While only a statistically insignificant number have actually moved out of urban locations, there is a marked trend in home-based working for at least part of the week, with visits to the office no longer required five days a week.

The London and South East sector is most affected by this trend, since it relies most heavily on commuter traffic for overall ridership. Compared with three years ago, only 71.1 per cent of the 7.9 billion kilometres were travelled in the latest quarter. However, there were relatively more passenger journeys (75.5 per cent of three years ago) than kilometres (71.1 per cent) in the latest quarter. Distance per journey fell from 26.1 to 24.6 kilometres, a fall of 5.8 per cent. Either everyone in London has moved six percent closer to their workplace, or there really are fewer people on the platform for what is no longer the daily commute.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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