Depressing picture for rail demand remains

Demand fall worsened to 82 per cent in the January-March quarter as the third lockdown bit into patronage – Chris has been analysing the figures.

Demand for passenger rail services in the UK fell back sharply during the first quarter of 2021, carrying just 18 per cent of the figure in the same quarter of 2019. The third national lockdown was in place throughout the twelve-week period.

Overall, demand fell by 82.1 per cent during the quarter, according to National Rail Trends statistics, published by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Passenger numbers fell by over 70 per cent at all TOCs bar eight where losses were in the fifties or sixties. In three cases – Avanti West Coast, and open access operators Heathrow Express and Hull Trains – percentage falls were eighty per cent or higher. The Scottish and Welsh franchises were just below 80%.

The provisional figures were published last month, and cover the final quarter of fiscal year 2020/21, finishing at the end of March: across the network, 79.6m passenger journeys were made during the twelve-week period, down from 443.8m in 2019. Between them, they covered 3.1 billion passenger kilometres, 81.2 per cent down, and paid a total of £365m in fares, 85.9 per cent less than in 2019.

Looking at demand by ticket type, advance tickets were down by 83.4 per cent, whilst anytime peak and off-peak fares were down by 78 per cent and 80.7 per cent respectively. Season ticket holders made 85.1 per cent fewer journeys, back to the same levels as last summer.

There is as yet no sector data for the January-March quarter as previous figures are being updated. Looking at individual InterCity operators, East Midlands Railway fared the best, seeing a fall of 73.2 per cent, with Avanti West Coast the worst on 80.5%.

Amongst the regional franchises, Scotrail led the downward trend with a fall of 79.2 per cent, followed by the Welsh operation on 78.9 per cent. Merseyrail saw the smallest reduction, on 56.7 per cent.

The falls amongst London and South East operators were at the lower end of the range. TfL Rail and London Overground saw the smallest falls at 54.9 per cent and 56.1% respectively. These two were the only TOCs to keep more than 40 per cent of their previous loads. Four more kept more than 30 per cent: c2c with a 60.5 per cent fall, South Western (down 63.8 per cent), Greater Anglia (68.4) and GTR (69.8). The others were all in the 70 to 77 per cent range.

Rolling year figures

The national totals for the twelve months ended 31 March 2021 now include four Covid-affected quarters. Compared with the last pre-Covid year of 2018/19, they show the number of passenger journeys falling by 77.9 per cent to 388.6 million, which ORR says is the lowest since 1872. Passenger kilometres travelled fell by 80.3 per cent to 13.2 billion, whilst passenger revenue saw a similar fall of 81.5 per cent to £1,894 million.

The train operators with the lowest falls have been in the commuting market, with five retaining more than 40% of their patronage across the year. These were TfL Rail, London Overground, c2c, Merseyrail and Northern. At the other end of the scale, six companies lost two-thirds or more of their business, including Avanti West Coast, Chiltern, LNER, Scotrail, Transport for Wales and TransPennine Express.


Given the horrendous start to the New Year, with infection rates and hospital admissions seemingly spiralling out of control, these numbers hardly come as a shock. In fact, if anything, the surprise is the other way – that the numbers are so much higher than they were during the first lockdown the spring of last year. In fact, the 79.6m figure is more than double the number carried during the March-June quarter of last year.

Three of the longer distance operators – West Coast, LNER and Cross Country – continue to be hit by the virtually complete disappearance of Anglo-Scottish travel. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the strongest recoveries have been seen on commuter routes. Interestingly, though, the strongest recovery in patronage between the two lockdowns was seen at Northern (170 per cent) and Great Western (159 per cent), with the aforesaid Avanti West Coast seeing the poorest at 69.4 per cent.

These figures had been well anticipated, given the Department for Transport’s ongoing publication of transport demand estimates every week since the lockdown began in March 2020. When the quarter opened in January, rail use was shown to be around 15-17 per cent of the 2019 figure, and this was maintained until early March when it rose to around 25 per cent as infections fell and the vaccination programme began to make itself felt.  

Season ticket holders accounted for 31.7 per cent of all passenger journeys in the quarter – the highest proportion since the start of the first lockdown. It is still lower than the pre-Covid figure of 33 to 36 per cent, but is almost double the 16 per cent recorded in the June to September quarter last year.

Since the gradual easing of restrictions began in April, passenger demand does seem to have recovered again. From the 27-30 per cent recorded in the first week of April, demand levels have grown to above 40 per cent in mid-May, and even hit 50 per cent at the end of the month. London Underground numbers were running slightly behind national rail, but both were behind bus, which had recovered to between 65 and 70 per cent by the end of May.

Since then, the emergence of the Delta variant and the upsurge of cases have once again put the pace of recovery from the pandemic in doubt, and as I write the possibility of a third wave of infections looms large.

This is yet more evidence, if any were needed, that the Covid-19 virus has not done with us yet. As we do begin to emerge, our economy and our transport system has to adapt to the new circumstances we face.

Fewer workers commuting on fewer days, perhaps – though there is no consensus amongst employers as to how and whether home or ‘hybrid’ working is going to become the norm. The likeliest scenario seems that when passenger numbers do finally recover, we’ll still be 20 per cent short of the number of commuters that were travelling pre-Covid.

However, we do need to keep this in proportion. After all, as I’ve pointed out before, a 20% cut would take us back to 2014 levels – and I don’t recall the trains actually being empty then.

The really important thing from a revenue point of view will be the fate of business travel – the source of all that first class peak revenue that generated those nice fat premium payments for the Treasury for the last decade or so. Shopping is another journey category at serious risk – though this is much less of a problem for rail than bus, it still might meant that the industry would be missing passengers it can’t afford to lose.

There’s no doubt that Covid is changing the way in which our services – both rail and now bus – are provided. For the moment, the likely course of events remains unclear – in the short term as we recover from Covid and in the long term as we wrestle with the changes we need to make to meet the net zero target. It’s still going to be a bumpy ride!

First published in Rail Professional magazine.