Pete Myers, formerly Stakeholder Manager for Northern Rail and now a director of Railfuture, forecasts a potentially stormy year for our railway in 2023. Passengers moving fast at Leeds station.
I do fear that we will see some dramatic changes in the rail industry during 2023. ‘Fear’ is probably the wrong word because change is not only inevitable (‘change being the only constant in life’), but absolutely needed post the pandemic, with working practices shifting.
The ‘traditional’ commute was the raison d'être for much of the industry and that has changed. This said I really don’t think that change has stopped yet, and demand may well alter again. It is true that many people prefer to work from home given an option, but many don’t get that option (you can’t run a till in a retail store from home). Equally I am sure that many businesses are trying to move away from the concept of working from home 100% of the time. It is often less efficient, and you inevitably lose the innovative spark that can be gained from reacting with colleagues in the workplace.
Last year I was speaking to the business improvement district (BID) people in one of the big cities here in the North, and they were clear that they expected the offices to be full again by the end of this year (2023). This could just be wishful thinking on their part, but observation of the midweek commute towards the end of the year (outside of a strike day), shows a pretty busy picture. Therefore, given a fair wind and an absence of ‘COVID-19 the new batch’ it is hard to argue against the BID team’s thoughts.
Of course, public transport needs to meet the needs of this market, but it will be different (and difficult). This is because given an option people will undoubtedly work from home on a Monday and a Friday. Therefore, to run an efficient railway the timetable will need to match this. Interestingly this is far from new, and for many years prior to the pandemic, Fridays were a dead duck as far as the ‘normal’ commute was concerned. Longer distance operators in particular were affected by this, but by lunchtime on a Friday they were busier than during the rest of the week, as people travelled on leisure trips.
For a great number of years, the railway timetable has been Monday to Friday, often with a separate Saturday and Sunday iteration. The future could well be different with the commute focused mid-week, and provision aimed at the leisure market for the rest of the week. After all, this propensity to travel for leisure, has really shown itself in all the post-pandemic passenger data.
The real issue will be funding, there is no doubt that as a nation we are strapped for cash, and the railway receives taxpayer’s money from the Exchequer, and given the rates of inflation currently seen, this funding must be subject to change.
Does this mean that we will see cuts in rail services, yes it probably does. The important thing will be to ensure that these changes are made using genuine business and socioeconomic data. More-so that the services that remain can genuinely do what they are intended to do, which is to enable people to go where they need to go, and to provide an impetus for the local economies, especially those here in the North.
I do feel that 2023 could be a difficult year for the industry. With the market further morphing, and the Treasury needing to balance the nation’s books post the pandemic.
Confidence is key though, and therefore the strikes need to end, and the service needs to be reliable (even if thinner than that we used to enjoy) because without confidence that your train will run, the rest is simply moot.
I really don’t have an inside track on these matters, but the above does feel like the way that the wind is blowing. Therefore, Railfuture will need to be ready to ensure that they play their part in shaping this changing future and keeping the rail industry honest during 2023.