Mother and pre-school son on train

Britain’s changing pattern of rail travel

Friends and family travel is a growth sector for British train operators Image from Great British Railways Transition Team media centre

When Great British Railways eventually succeeds Network Rail as the infrastructure and management agency for the UK network, it will inherit a much-changed railway. In terms of passenger usage, and the reasons customers give for boarding a train in the UK, the market is shifting into something more akin to the 1970s, rather than heading towards the 2030s. Great British Railways Transition Team has already been active in compiling statistics and their latest announcement suggests that leisure travel is surging ahead, making the railway travel pattern more resemble that of a bygone age, when holiday relief train and weekend specials were a critical answer to demand patterns.

Leisure travel is surging, According to figures compiled by the Great British Railways Transition Teams (GBRTT) – the formative body tasked with putting in place the management structure that will replace Network Rail and many administrative functions currently handled by government departments or franchised operators. The GBRTT figures in their latest Train Travel Snapshot have revealed a significant boost in quarterly rail revenue, driven primarily by a surge in leisure travel. The analysis indicates that the rail industry is gradually rebounding from the pandemic depression, with total revenue increasing by 13 per cent, amounting to 295 million pounds (345 million euros).

Experimentally abolished peak fares

Quarterly figures from the GBRTT, covering 1 April 1 to 30 June 2023, demonstrate a healthy recovery in confidence for Britain’s railways. Passenger analysis shows a 19 per cent quarter-on-quarter growth in revenue from leisure travel. That robust contribution is the most positive indicator of an overall positive trend. Leisure travel accounted for more than 75 per cent of the increase in rail revenue during this period, underscoring its pivotal role in the industry’s recovery. That has resulted in higher loading on what were previously regarded as ‘off-peak’ operations, although no operator has responded by designating any additional peak hour restrictions. In fact at least one operator (ScotRail) has experimentally abolished peak fares altogether – at least for six months.

A graphic using a train motif on a viaduct to illustrate the split between standard class passengers, business travellers and fist class passengers
Passenger train travel is becoming more akin to the demographic of air travel, with ‘first class’ providing a smaller proportion of overall loading

Commuting and business travel also experienced growth, of six per cent and eight per cent respectively. GBRTT statisticians put those figures down to a belated return to offices and regular business activities. As more individuals resume office-based work, says a report accompanying the figures, the railway sector is adapting to the evolving needs of customers. in this case, adapting is a case of back to the future, with greater emphasis on out-of-peak travel provision.

Think about future demand

Industry sources have given a cautious welcome to the figures. “These hugely encouraging GBRTT numbers are further evidence that passengers are returning to the railway in a big way”, said Darren Caplan, Chief Executive of the Railway Industry Association, which represents the supply chain. “It’s a reminder that as a country we must not take our foot off the pedal of rail investment and that we need to think about future demand today by planning capacity for tomorrow. Ultimately this benefits customers – both [passenger] rail and freight [operations] – as well as the public purse, which gets better value for money as we seek to develop world-class rail infrastructure and rolling stock in the years ahead.”

For their part, the GBRTT say they are committed to initiatives, such as simplifying ticketing processes, providing better value for money, and improving communication to create a more customer-centric railway system. “We need the collective clout of all parts of the industry working together to drive growth”, said Suzanne Donnelly, Director of Passenger Revenue at the Great British Railways Transition Team. “Local rail leaders know their own contexts best, but by bringing decision-makers across the industry together to prioritise investment, GBRTT is supporting joined-up decision-making that works across the whole network.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for and

6 comments op “Britain’s changing pattern of rail travel”

Martin Welborne|21.11.23|10:06

So if leisure travel has now surpassed pre-Covid levels why are Network Rail still closing our railways for engineering works at weekends – sometimes for months on end. Is anyone out there listening or even watching ?

Martin Welborne|21.11.23|10:12

So if leisure travel has surpassed pre-Covid levels why is Network Rail still carrying out so many engineering works at weekends? Sometimes successive weekends as well with Sunday being a popular day. Why not ban all engineering works in August for instance and give everyone a break ?

Peter Lee|21.11.23|11:48

I bet many of these ‘leisure’ journeys are by people ‘shirking’ at home judging from the number of people of working age taking them!

John Cherrington|21.11.23|22:00

To get a proper perspective we need to see what the operating costs incurred during the same period were.

tristram mitchell|22.11.23|16:05

I expect that there would be more again if the toc’s enforced a ban on vaping on the train and the playing of music without headphones!
It’s no good having a ban without any body enforcing it!

James McEwan|22.11.23|19:18

I’m a guard, so happy for any uptake in travel. The problem with leisure travel very commuters is they don’t know how to use trains. They all sit in same coach and won’t sit down next to some one they don’t know. They all use same door to get on and bring luggage far larger than they can handle.

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