Why rail passenger growth will continue and has nothing to do with privatisation

WITH none of the fanfare we might usually expect from government ministers, a significant report has just been published which clearly shows that rail passenger growth has nothing at all to do with privatisation 20 years ago, but everything to do with peoples’ changing behaviour, especially among younger folk.

A study by the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has followed up on findings three years ago that road and rail travel trends were not behaving as the forecasting models had predicted, with car travel much lower than estimated while rail growth had significantly exceeded expectations.

The new study has found under-30s much less likely to use the car also a slowing rate of growth in car use among young women has been coupled with a dramatic increase in their rail travel.

The report says young people are falling out of love with the car, placing greater weight on alternative consumer products, while older people see the car as an important part of their lifestyle.

Younger people are also much more open to new ways of shopping, such as click and collect from stations, which is enabling more shopping to take place without the need for a car.

The ITC/ORR report adds that younger people are especially concerned about the high cost of using a car relative to their income, including issues such as insurance, parking and learning to drive.

The impact of concessionary and advance fares on public transport use is also an important driver, especially for younger people and pensioners, the report observes.

The report adds that location appears to be a key determinant for modal choice. This is particularly the case with older people in rural areas who feel that they need to retain a car in order to preserve their independence.

Across almost all groups the research indicates that journeys are increasingly being split between different modes, which suggests that the need for a fully integrated transport system is stronger than ever.

Company car tax and technology have made a difference

As for business travellers, the study found they displayed the most noticeable shift from car travel to rail use, driven by changes in tax policies towards company cars.

A further key finding is the impact of technology on travel attitudes and behaviour: The surveys showed that we are seeing changing attitudes towards the value of travel time, especially by business travellers using the train.

For those arguing against high speed rail in favour of internet usage instead, the reported states: Communications technology is also affecting modal choice, especially for younger people, who are attuned to using smartphones and tablets on the go, and this is also facilitating car sharing and leasing.

Far from contributing towards a decline in travel, the attitudes expressed in this research show the opposite, with social media facilitating new encounters, and business travellers believing that technology is actually increasing their need to travel.

The future implications for car manufacturers and retailers could also be significant, according to the report. We are seeing a rise in utilitarian attitudes towards car travel, which indicates that car ownership is likely to increasingly shift towards new forms of car access, such as car hire and car clubs.

An equally significant factor pointing towards more permanent changes in
attitudes is the way in which use of public transport modes when [people are] young increases the likelihood of continuing to use these later in life.

It is striking that these changing attitudes towards modal choice appear not to be leading to a lesser desire to travel overall . . . indeed almost all groups
explored, except the elderly, expected their travel to increase over the next five years.

Implications for the future

The research implies that changing attitudes to travel among young people,
including a lower priority placed on car ownership and greater use of public transport and cycling/walking, is likely to have a lasting effect.

It adds that the need for investment to increase public transport capacity is therefore likely to remain strong.

The increasing preference across groups for multi-modal journeys suggests that efforts need to continue to improve modal integration and increase awareness of travel choices.

The changing attitudes to car ownership also suggest that, although demand for road travel will continue to remain high, we must be prepared for new forms of car usage, including car hire and sharing, to flourish. This will increase the marginal cost of each car journey, with likely increases in demand for other forms of land-based travel.

Finally, it is clear from this research that location and access to transport are key drivers of travel attitudes and choice. This indicates that transport must be fully integrated into land use and planning decisions, since much will depend on where new housing is built and its associated transport provision.

The ITC and ORR conclude that further investment by the DfT and research bodies would be helpful in finding ways to measure these important factors and then use this information to develop more sophisticated forecasting and models.

It will be interesting to see if such further investment is forthcoming!

Meanwhile, according to this study, not only will rail usage continue to grow, but at a far greater rate than reckoned previously. For example, this would explain why growth along the West Coast Main Line continues to exceed 5 per cent per annum, while future plans for HS2 have assumed only 2.2 per cent growth each year.

The future capacity crisis, including the justification for HS2, may be closer than thought by the powers-that-be.

One thought on “Why rail passenger growth will continue and has nothing to do with privatisation

  1. This may or may not be the whole story re. passenger growth, but then , after many years of steady decline, railfreight has similarly grown, without subsidies and in the face of declining coal traffic, over the past 20 years.
    Any conclusions regarding private / public ownership seem unclear.

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