The impacts of Covid-19 have been very damaging to the British rail industry, which has seen a drop in ridership, a reduction in services and a slowdown in subscription purchases, which has had major economic consequences.
Passenger train travel started to decline from the beginning of March last year and by the end of the first fiscal quarter (April 1 to June 30) ridership had fallen to 5% from normal levels. This saw Q1 2020-21 fare revenues drop 93.1% year over year, according to the Office of Rail and Road – Railway Industry Financials Annual Report 2019-20.
Now more than ever, the rail industry must increase passenger numbers for the sector to rebound and work towards economic recovery. In the UK, the government has provided financial support funding to maintain UK rail services. Along with this, several projects have been proposed to act as a catalyst to boost the industry’s economic recovery in the post-pandemic world.
Linking Merseyside to North Wales, an economic stimulus project
A proposed project to enable post-Covid economic recovery and boost connectivity will improve the railway line between Merseyside and North Wales.
Costing Â£ 200million, the upgrade would see these areas linked through a new super hub in Chester. The funding breaks down into Â£ 80million to link Liverpool to Wrexham, Â£ 60million to upgrade and modernize Chester station, Â£ 20million for a new upgraded station in Shotton, Flintshire and Â£ 60million to speed up the line main road in North Wales that connects Holyhead.
The proposal is led by the North Wales and Mersey Dee Task Force, as well as Growth Track 360, an initiative launched to secure funding for rail improvements that aim to economically transform Cheshire and the North region from Wales.
The current rail network which connects North Wales, Cheshire and Wirral sees journeys taking over 140 minutes by train compared to only 50 minutes by car; this causes frequent traffic jams in the areas around these locations. According to Growth Track 360, road congestion is expected to increase by 33% over the next 20 years, which not only impacts travel times, but also creates numerous environmental complications.
Investing in this network would not only reduce journey times and improve the frequency of passenger services, but also improve connectivity at local and national levels. Cheshire and Wirral have important economic ties with North Wales, which projects like this would expand significantly through improved transport links.
Besides the economic benefits, the investment would also help job seekers. Right now, according to Growth Track 360, one in five applicants are turning down job interviews or offers due to inaccessible travel. This project would allow a better connection for people moving to jobs in different areas, which would lead to an increase in the number of people who would be able to get to a job by rail.
Technological focus for the Philadelphia rail network
The Covid-19 pandemic has also had an impact on the US rail sector, with a 70% decrease in train travel in urban areas compared to May of last year, according to the team at the origin of the real-time global transit app Moovit.
A project, which was recently approved by the board of directors of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), acts as a five-year strategic plan for restoring authority after the impacts of Covid-19, setting a vision for the future growth.
SEPTA is the regional public transportation authority that operates commuter trains, light rail, and other services for nearly four million people in and around the five counties of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The plan’s introduction, SEPTA Forward: A Vision for a Stronger Future, provides a framework for the industry to enable economic recovery and continue to provide services to its users. The function of the strategic plan is to identify the main challenges that the industry has faced due to the impacts of the pandemic, as well as to define a vision of the direction to be taken by the authority in terms of growth and development.
“The strategic plan marks an important step in establishing a clear direction and setting priorities”
Jody Holton, Deputy Managing Director of Planning at SEPTA, discussed this further. âThe strategic plan marks an important step in establishing clear direction and setting priorities. This will help us to implement the strategies in a coordinated manner and build our long-term vision for a transit system that meets the needs of a wide variety of passengers, âsaid Holton.
âTechnology is truly the 21st century infrastructure for travel planning, real-time communications and prepayment. We are therefore concentrating our investments in these areas. ”
The technology implementation will focus on real-time communications, contactless solutions, real-time congestion information and prepayment options for customers. The inclusion of this technology is aimed at providing an engaging and positive travel experience for passengers as well as increasing ease of accessibility.
Accelerate the digitization of the German rail network
Germany has also faced economic setbacks due to the impacts of Covid-19 on the rail sector. However, the political awareness within the German government regarding the importance of the railway industry has seen the government launch funding initiatives to support the industry.
In early March 2021, the German Federal Government and the German Railway Industry Association announced that they would work together to accelerate the digitization of the German rail network. The initiative is funded by the federal government’s recovery plan against coronaviruses, which provides for investments of 500 million euros for the industry.
This digitization project aims to replace old systems found in seven regional routes with the latest digital interlocking technology. This technology will allow more trains to run on existing tracks and will increase the punctuality and reliability of trains, which is not only essential for passengers but also for freight transport.
The new technology will also form a vital basis for European Train Control Systems (ETCS), a speed control system that enables interoperability of national rail systems. These systems not only increase the speed of trains, but also see reduced costs for maintenance and purchase of signaling systems.
Axel Schuppe, Managing Director of the German Railway Industry Association, explained: âDigital interlocking technology increases the availability and reliability of railways, and therefore, it’s punctuality, it’s l essential for goods and passengers.
“But I think the most important benefit is that digital locks are an indispensable basis for ETCS, they enable high speed roads that connect metropolises across Europe as fast as airplanes, I think this is the main advantage. â
Along with the economic benefits, the acceleration program will create a base for up to 10,000 jobs in the industry, according to projections made by the association. Job creation is fundamental in the current climate as the country sees unemployment increase by 25% compared to the previous year, according to IZA Covid-19, monitoring the response to the crisis Germany December 2020.
Schuppe said: âIt’s a big impact on people because the question is how to mitigate demographic shifts, what is the best argument for recruiting young professionals to work in the rail system and the rail network. Almost 50% of the operating personnel of the rail network will be retired over the next decade.
“Including digitization and focusing more on technology creates an interesting working environment, which is essential for acquiring new people”
“Including digitization and focusing more on technology creates an interesting working environment which is essential for acquiring new people and young professionals.”
Rail projects as diverse as increasing digitization, laying new tracks and improving localization links form the basis for the economic rebound of the rail industry in a post-pandemic world.