This week’s chart tracks railway usage, illustrating how passenger journeys in Great Britain dropped by 77.7% from 1,739m trips in 2019-20 to 388m in the year to 31 March 2021.
The current number of journeys is the lowest since records began in 1872, when 407m trips were taken at the start of the heyday of rail. Passenger numbers grew until 1920 and a peak of 2,186m journeys, before the advent of the motor car saw trips decline gradually over the following 60 or so years until the nadir of 630m journeys in 1982. Since then, passenger journeys have grown rapidly up to 2016-17 (1,727m journeys) before levelling off, followed by the huge decline in the most recent financial year.
Passenger numbers have started to rise again in the last few months but the big question is whether they will return to their pre-pandemic level or if there will be a permanent decline, with fewer commuters as working patterns change and fewer business and shopping trips as online retail takes over?
The cost of running empty trains has been significant for the now ‘nationalised’ railway, with train operators converted from franchise businesses into management-contract concessions alongside the already publicly owned rail infrastructure owner Network Rail. Emergency payments to train operators in 2020-21 amounted to just over £7bn, adding to the cost of an already taxpayer-subsidised railway system in Great Britain.
The difficulty for the new Great British Railways organisation that will take charge of the railways over the next couple of years will be in finding ways to bring passengers back so that neither subsidies nor prices have to go up permanently.