The rising popularity of rail travel in Britain
There is a paradox in the British attitude towards the railways. On the one hand, trains are the great Aunt Sally, a reposi-tory of complaints ranging from ageing carriages to overcrowding. Indeed, no boss would question an employee who gives train delay as an excuse for turning up late.
On the other, people just keep flocking on to the lines. Despite ticket prices going up by one per cent above inflation annually for the past decade according to a government formula, the numbers travelling by train have almost doubled in that time and the increase shows no sign of abating, with a near five per cent rise during 2012 despite the economic gloom.
This sustained growth is, in fact, bucking a long-term trend that goes back to the early days of rail travel. Railway usage used to only grow in the good times, falling back during recessions. Now, it seems, nothing can stop the onward rush.
The privatized train operators like to claim credit for this, but have done little to influence demand beyond marketing cheap advance fares. Instead, the rise is due to several long-term factors that have encouraged people on to the trains and, in some cases, out of their cars. Some are obvious such as the ability of
Others are less obvious. For example, changes in the planning laws encouraged the development of brownfield sites which tend to be near railway stations. Similarly, as On the Move, a report commissioned by the
advantage of their rail journey by working on their laptop, making use of free or cheap wi-fi.
Youngsters too like the train. There is a push as well as a pull factor: the soaring cost of car insurance has led to a drop in teenagers taking the driving test which means many have little alternative to rail, while the Young Person's Railcard cuts a third off the ticket price.
However, not all is rosy. While these explain some of the growth, much is unaccounted for and railway managers fear it could end abruptly. That would throw the railway's economics into chaos since investment plans, as ministers and rail managers emphasize with great frequency, are the biggest since Victorian times, and any slowing down could put them in doubt.
Indeed, while these are good times for the railways, there is an underlying problem which is the very high cost of operating them. Concern in the
Network Rail announced in January what would be its biggest improvement programme ever, seeking to spend £37 billion over five years from
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