THE chairman of Network Rail Sir Peter Hendy has predicted that leisure and holiday travel by train is set to increase, while commuter traffic is likely to continue to fall, confirming a trend which had started before the pandemic.
Sir Peter suggested that demand in the rush hours could fall by perhaps 20 per cent, at least for the next three years One consequence could be a rethink of maintenance timetables, with more engineering work taking place on ‘quieter weekdays’.
Less demand from commuters would mean fewer trains during what had been regarded as the classic Monday to Friday peaks, but Sir Peter welcomed the idea, saying: ‘A lot of leisure travel is going to be within Great Britain. Last year we saw a lot of really packed trains … It wouldn’t surprise me if on summer Saturdays we have more demand than in the working week.
‘I used to watch the trains to the Cornish Riviera from Paddington and it was packed. The railway might have to get used to that. If Saturday and Sunday get busy in summer, we should do engineering works at another time.
‘We’ve got to be dextrous. There’s no point in us saying: we planned these engineering works on a Sunday 18 weeks ago. We should be prepared this summer to say: they want to come and we’ll take them.’
Sir Peter also welcomed the prospect of fewer trains on suburban lines. He said: ‘The service doesn’t run any better if you put too many trains on the track. We’ve proved that. You shouldn’t try to get more out of the infrastructure than it can give you. All of my experience is that people prefer reliability to journey time.’
He added that the changing patterns of demand could affect the design of train interiors, with more space being provided rather than as many seats as possible. He said: ‘People are going to be much less willing to cram in and have their nose stuck in somebody’s armpit.’
The Network Rail chairman was addressing the National Rail Recovery Conference, which also heard from Keith Williams, whose delayed review of the railways is said to be due out soon.
Mr Williams gave few firm indications of what he is set to recommend, but he did say his review had been ‘far from being stuck in the sidings. Over the last nine months the review has been tested against the pandemic. It would have been foolish to think that long-term reform could happen in isolation without considering the short-term changes.
‘We are now all keen to get to the end so the task of recovery can begin.’
Although Mr Williams gave more hints than details, Sir Peter did reveal that one change could be ahead for Network Rail: ‘We wouldn’t want the name continued, and we certainly don’t want some of its reputation or history or costs … maybe it’s easier to turn it into something different than start afresh. We don’t want some of the bad reputation [it] had for failing to listen and being very expensive.’
Meanwhile, regulated fares will rise by 2.5 per cent on Monday. The Department for Transport only announced the rise in December, and this was too late for changes to be made at the start of January as usual.
The increase has been criticised by transport campaigners and commentators, while there have been renewed calls for flexible, part time season tickets.
The Campaign for Better Transport said: ‘Public transport will have a vital role to play in a green recovery. To encourage more people to return to public transport post-Covid, and avoid an increase in car use, we need to put in place the right financial incentives. The Chancellor should use the Budget to commit to a public transport discount scheme to help stimulate the economy and get people moving again when the time is right.’