Reliability is emerging as the Achilles heel of the rail industry’s recovery since the pandemic.
A major part of the decline in operational performance is almost certainly attributable to climate change. Services have been continually hit by infrastructure problems, with storms felling trees and bringing down overhead lines, together with flooding and earth slips. For example, just after New Year the Great Western routes between Swindon and Bristol Parkway and Reading and Taunton were both shut, as was the Waterloo – Exeter route west of Yeovil Junction. Network Rail is seized with the importance of tackling these issues but is inevitably playing catch-up and is limited by budgetary constraints.
At the same time, the network has been impacted by continued industrial action. Before Christmas, ASLEF called a rolling programme of strikes, together with an overtime ban; even when the declared period of industrial action had finished, a number of the train operating companies were hit by “staff shortages”, with for example both Northern and Thameslink operating only minimal services on New Year’s Eve and other routes experiencing a high number of cancellations.
While services appear to have settled down at present, ASLEF and the operators have yet to reach a settlement, so we can expect more stoppages. Furthermore, RMT may well be back in the fray in the Spring. As a harbinger for this, a six day strike on London Underground was cancelled at the last minute after intervention by the Mayor. TfL has the Treasury looming over its shoulder as it has to live within the constraints of the tight funding deal imposed by the Government and, for most train operators, what they can offer is directly controlled by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Treasury. This is in marked contrast to the position before the collapse of the traditional franchise structure at the start of the pandemic, when industrial relations were clearly the responsibility of the franchisees, with Ministers able to distance themselves from any involvement.
The only saving grace in relation to the current poor performance of the rail network is that most passengers are able to check their journeys in advance, in many cases can time-shift their travel to avoid cancellations and often claim back much or all of the full cost of their journeys. The impact of these refunds on industry revenues in the last month must have been significant. There is also often gross overcrowding, especially when successive trains are cancelled.
Fleet reductions imposed by DfT to save operating costs exacerbate this, most dramatically on Cross Country, which had to retire its High Speed Trains despite a level of systemic overcrowding across its network, leading to reduced capacity. Capacity will be restored when new Avanti units release some Voyagers from the West Coast Main Line but, as things stand at present, only to the previous level as not all the trains released on West Coast Main Line are to be transferred. There is clearly an opportunity to capture pent-up demand on Cross Country but costs are easier for civil servants to calculate and train operating companies are not being allowed to manage their bottom line on a holistic basis, balancing cost and revenue.
In December, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) published the latest station usage figures for 2022/23. In most cases, these show striking declines against the 2019/20 pre-pandemic numbers.
For example, Birmingham New Street and Manchester Piccadilly declined by 33% and 27% respectively. Waterloo, until the pandemic the busiest station on the network, declined by 33%. Happily, despite poor operational performance, there has clearly been further recovery in passenger numbers during the current financial year and commuter station car parks are now respectably filled in the middle of the working week.
In contrast, the Elizabeth Line has resulted in massive growth across its network, so that Liverpool Street and Paddington now top the table, with Waterloo dropping to third place; Birmingham New Street – the highest non-London station – has dropped from fifth to eleventh. Much of the Elizabeth Line numbers represent a swich of journeys which were previously made on London Underground but are now included as part of the National Rail statistics. However, that change doesn’t explain the spectacular growth at the stations away from the city centre.
For example, passenger numbers at Acton Main Line have tripled compared with 2019/20, as the station now has a frequent service and is directly connected across the city – previously, trains only took passengers to Paddington, itself not a well-connected terminal before the Elizabeth Line opened. Furthermore, most of this growth was concentrated in the last five months of the year as through services beyond Paddington didn’t start until November 2022.
Passenger numbers at stations across the route have generally significantly increased, including on the Shenfield – Liverpool Street section, a mature, high volume route which already had a frequent service; for example, Romford is up 24% and Shenfield is up 22%. All this growth compares with pre-pandemic levels; in contrast, for the great majority of stations across the country usage has significantly declined.
It’s quite clear that the opening of the Elizabeth Line has had a profound effect on the areas it serves. The results make a strong argument for the benefits of rail infrastructure investment and will certainly be delivering the agglomeration benefits much discussed by economists.
The development of open access services continues. The latest proposal – from First Group – is for a service between Sheffield and Kings Cross, twice daily in each direction, calling at Retford, Worksop and Woodhouse and, First Group claim, providing faster journey times than the existing route via Leicester.
First group already operate Hull Trains and Lumo, the two existing open access services on the East Coast Main Line and this is clearly an attractive and well thought out proposal. In practice, the Government has historically opposed open access because of the risk of abstraction from franchised services but the existing operations have a good reputation and have increased rail’s mode share and grown the market and, more recently, Ministers have made more positive noises about competition.
This is potentially a difficult issue for Labour if as expected they win the forthcoming election. The party has a clear policy to bring passenger service operation back into the public sector – but before the creation of Hull trains there was just one daily through service to London and the route has been transformed with eight each way.
Photo credit: Paul Bigland.