In the introduction of her report, Nicola Shaw begins “Great Britain has Europe’s fastest growing and safest railway, and one of its most financially successful”. Indeed, rail growth has outstripped every other mode of transport in Britain. As the graph above (taken from the Shaw report) shows, the railway in Britain has grown passenger numbers by more than 100% yet the:

  • number of carriages has increased by 14%
  • number of trains per day has increased by 25%
  • track miles have increased by 10%
  • number of stations has increased by a miniscule 1.5%

Any business that more than doubles its number of customers by only marginally increasing the resource needed to provide the service has a great business model: the kind that is seen with internet start-ups rather than the traditional ‘bricks & mortar’ business. So, how has this been possible with an infrastructure-intensive industry?

Railfuture director Jerry Alderson looks at the reasons why Britain’s railway has achieved not quite ‘more for less’ but certainly ‘more for little’ and, more importantly, whether this can be sustained in the future.

Anyone looking at these figures would begin by examining the measurability of each of the metrics – just how reliable are they? Clearly it is very easy to count fixed infrastructure such as stations, track miles and carriages; and providing that proper records are kept it is easy to count the services provided (trains per day). However, how reliable are passenger figures?

Looking at the 1995 and 2014 passenger figures is it a case of comparing apples with pears?

Well, partly, because some end-to-end journeys that would have been recorded as a single journey under British Rail are split into two (or more) journeys under the fragmented franchise system we have today, even though the passenger bought just one ticket. Conversely, some passengers have learned that it can be cheaper to split their tickets en route; however, providing that they are bought together as a single transaction it should be recorded as a single journey.

Given that currently one’s journey is merely marked rather than being counted at a station (e.g. when passing through a ticket barrier) or on board, even if using a smart card, then there is no way of knowing (other than through occasional representative surveys) how many journeys are made using a season ticket, which represents a considerable proportion of train travel.

In recent years, with many office workers spending most of their time at a computer, there is far more ‘working from home’ than in the past. An annual season ticket is treated as around 240 return journeys a year – a figure dating back to the 1960s – but the reality is that many people work from home at least one day a week (e.g. Friday). This is evidenced by surveys of passengers who would welcome the introduction of bespoke season tickets that are valid only on certain days of the week, something that Railfuture has been calling for.

The quoted national passenger figures are, naturally, based on passengers who have paid for their journey. What about those who have not? Train operators (TOCs) often claim a low figure, perhaps 2%, for passengers who have been caught evading the fare. However, that will be an underestimate because it represents only those people checked and some passengers know ways of maximising their chances of avoiding being checked.

In a comparison between 1995 and 2015 the question is whether the rail industry is better or worse at deterring ticket-less travel (in considering the number of journeys, we will ignore evading just part of the journey). The DfT has been encouraging, even demanding, the installation of ticket barriers at most manned stations, in contrast to other European countries where they are a rarity. The DfT claims that ticket-less travel has been falling, so perhaps the railway has seen more of an increase in recorded travel rather than actual travel over this period.

We may conclude that passenger figures are probably inflated a little, but it would still represent a 100% increase in twenty years, which is remarkably good and probably not achieved by any other mature industry in Britain.

Going back to the dream achievement of massive passenger increase with minimal investment begs the question of what other types of investment, beyond carriages, track and stations, were needed to enable this growth.

Demand – especially for off-peak services - has been suppressed (and still is in many places) by a severe lack of car parking at stations, with many being full by 9am. In the last 20 years additional parking spaces have been provided at nearly every station in Britain (at a cost of up to £10,000 per space). It’s a pity that the Shaw Report graphic didn’t show the increase in official parking spaces.

But the key requirement is space on trains to carry passengers. How can more rail passengers be carried without more seats being provided?

Of course, not every passenger has a seat. Overcrowding with passengers being forced to stand for all or part of their journey is widespread across the network, but still not acceptable. In some regions, such as northern England where few new carriages have been provided standing is probably at a historical high. Moreover, it is not uncommon to have to stand on late night trains (e.g. leaving London at 11pm – the so-called ‘third peak’), something that would have happened much less 20 years ago, although today’s problem is a result of carriages being in the sidings (for economic reasons) not actually a shortage of them.

Whilst British Rail had a substantial surplus of carriages (some only being used for a few weeks in summer in the fifties and sixties prior to large-scale scrapping) government policies in the 1980s sometimes restricted BR to replacing three life-expired carriages with just two new ones, so there was certainly not a surplus of unused carriages. There were, however, many underused ones.

Many carriages are now used all day long rather than just at peak times, which is possible because the demand for travel has grown to a level to justify more frequent off-peak services and longer trains. Until 2009 12-car trains were not even possible on Cambridge to King’s Cross services. Introduced at peak times on Monday-Friday they now run on Sundays too!

In its early years intercity-operator GNER increased from about 90 to around 130 train services per day without acquiring any new trains. It was achieved by better diagramming of trains maximising the number of miles that trains were used each day.

The operation has become much slicker with shorter turn-around times at terminus stations, which results in a few more trains per day. More services have also been possible by running faster trains thanks to the introduction of modern rolling stock with better acceleration, upgrades to line speed, infrastructure improvements such as flyovers and modern signalling to reduce the need for trains to slow down or stop.

Passenger growth has allowed some routes to have later services than ever before: a train leaves Sheringham in north Norfolk just after midnight to arrive back in Norwich just before 1am, thereby having some trains in revenue-earning service for 20 hours a day.

Train servicing and maintenance has become more efficient. The increased use of machinery means that work can be done in less time,  and since the introduction of ‘intelligent’ trains reporting their own faults by ‘radioing-ahead’ to the depot then staff and spares have been ready to address the fault. This means that fewer spare trains are needed. For example, with its modern standardised fleet, operator c2c is able to reliably run 71 trains at peak-time from a fleet of only 74.

The interiors of trains have also been changed. One, perhaps, welcome change is the conversion of some first class accommodation into standard class – and also the declassification of first class carriages when trains are particularly overcrowded. Less welcome, however, has been a tendency to cram more seats into carriages, often by a switch from facing seats around a table to airline style.

Of course, one of the main differences in the last 20 years has been the widespread promotion by all intercity and some other operators of ultra-cheap train-specific ‘advance’ fares on trains with spare capacity. The aggressive use of yield management-driven fares, allocated by computers, has seen both first and standard class carriages being fully used off peak and at weekends, for example.

There are few opportunities to further roll-out advance fares, but smart-cards that price according to the actual train used offer enormous potential to change passenger behaviour to fill empty seats and smooth-out the travel peaks. Unfortunately the roll-out of smart-cards has been tortuously slow - especially compared to countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark - for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, Britain’s exceedingly fragmented railway with incompatible systems.

Undoubtedly the railway has made significantly better use of all of its assets - rolling stock, routes and stations – but how close are we to ‘maxing-out’ those assets?

Crossrail will open in 2018/19 and the Thameslink upgrade will be complete by then, with both providing lots of new capacity in the capital, including the use of new technology to maximise the number of trains that can run on a route. Elsewhere electrification of vital routes is progressing at a snail’s pace, for deliverability reasons rather than lack of ambition, delaying the introduction of new trains to carry more people.

It seems that the implementation of enhancements across the country cannot take place fast enough to keep pace with growing demand for train travel. It’s an enviable position to be in, but a frustrating one for those passengers who cannot manage to squeeze onto a packed train or for organisations such as Railfuture, campaigning for a bigger and better railway to serve Britain’s transport needs.

Read previous articles by this writer:   Felixstowe Cut-Off, Passenger Priorities , Passenger Frustration, Accessible Travel, Eurostar Snapshot SurveyStansted Experience, Widening the NET, Lacklustre Busway, Expand Eurocity network,  Government backs Wi-Fi, Cheapest fares by law?Bring Back BR?Public Sector FranchisesFare Increase Viewpoint and Tube Staffing.


Railfuture’s response to the Shaw Report, written by Ian Brown, Railfuture’s Director of Policy, can be found here.