Public transport faces crisis fueled by Covid – Professor Iain Docherty

Train approaching Waverley Station through Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. Image: Getty

Public transport faces a crisis of a magnitude that no one currently working in the sector has faced before. Railways have been hit particularly hard by Covid, with passenger numbers dropping 95% in the first lockdown. The recovery over the past 20 months has been choppy, with homeworking more important in Scotland, meaning that demand for commuting has remained particularly depressed here.

Prior to Omicron’s coup, passenger numbers had recovered to around two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels, but early indications are that it has already declined sharply as the Scottish and UK governments have expressed their strong concern about the potential impacts of the new variant. Early figures estimated a 20% drop in the number of people arriving in London and other major English cities by train on Monday compared to last year, with a slightly smaller drop in Scotland.

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The impact of the decline in the use of railways on the public purse is enormous. Scotland’s recent budget increased rail spending to almost £ 1.4bn next year, roughly double the figure from just five years ago. The additional direct revenue support paid to keep the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper services running, attributable to the Covid-related drop in passenger numbers alone, now exceeds £ 200million per year.

Professor Iain Docherty, Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Stirling. Photo: Jim Mailer

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The collapse in passenger numbers and the consequent increase in public financial support also made the rail franchising system obsolete overnight. As a result, there has been a substantial reaffirmation of direct government control over the management of the rail sector. In England, the Transport Department has written to operators asking them to save £ 1.5 billion next year alone. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham on Wednesday warned that railways in northern England could enter a “period of managed decline” as a result.

In Scotland, ScotRail has already restructured its schedule to reduce operating costs, primarily by reducing capacity in peaks when far fewer people are traveling compared to before the pandemic. The Scottish Government’s ambitious plans to decarbonise the railway by 2035 continue, but here too there are already impacts: the recent decision to electrify the East Kilbride line in its current single-track form has been taken precisely because the business case for doubling the route could only be justified on the basis of a demand for trips into the tip that no longer exists.

Given the fixed budget available to the Scottish Parliament, Ministers are well aware that a pound spent on rail is a pound not spent on health, education or other public services. At the very least, further efficiency gains will be needed in everything from the way technical maintenance is performed to how tickets are sold to keep costs in check. But if demand drops further, there may still be increasing pressure to reduce service levels in response here, too.

So there is no doubt that the short term situation for rail is extremely difficult. After two or more years of changes in work practices, it seems incredible to suggest that things will somehow get back to where they were before. Especially for the white collar jobs which had the highest proportion of rail commuters before the pandemic, and the future of co-operative work and much less commuting to and from the office in the future seems likely to be a reality than the The rail industry and downtown economies will have to adapt.

Yet, in the longer term, we know that there is no feasible path to achieve the decarbonisation of transport – which currently accounts for around 40% of emissions in Scotland – that does not imply significantly increased use of public transport, including the rail. Even with the continued increase in working from home and the continued expansion of the use of online meeting tools to replace business travel, models illustrating how we can achieve Net Zero estimate that rail will need to carry around the double the number of passengers it carried before the pandemic. How then can the government and the rail industry resolve the vicious cycle of short-term funding pressures and the need for long-term expansion?

The answer is that the industry must do everything to rebuild the number of passengers while continuing to reduce costs. When it comes to attracting people to rail, there is at least some reason to be optimistic. Pleasure travel on the railways is booming while vacations abroad remain difficult. During the summer period, many recreational routes exceeded their peak passenger numbers, and full or even overcrowded trains were commonplace. This is crucial because it demonstrates an important “revealed preference”, that travelers are always very happy to use the train if their trip is important enough for them.

If people are still keen on using the railways, then the industry must respond by giving them the best possible reasons for doing so. Placing rail on a sustainable basis for the future requires tackling some long-standing issues. Perhaps the most obvious is the wide range of tickets available and the high price of some trips. There has been talk of ticketing reform for many years, but it is now more necessary than ever, especially since the cost of travel has become very apparent to many people because they have avoided paying a subscription by working from home. . But then, proper road pricing so that we pay the real costs that our own individual transport choices have on the economy and our citizens is also crucial.

Earlier in the pandemic, the rail industry feared that many passengers would never return because of the ‘Avoid public transport’ message and that fear of the virus persists. But now, rather than public health, it is the financial health of the sector that is the biggest problem in charting a COVID recovery that puts us on the path to the emission reductions demanded by the COP26 negotiations.

Professor Iain Docherty, University of Stirling Management School

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