Rail travel highest since 1920s: why the allure?

Figures released by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) suggest that rail travel may be enjoying a new dawn. Whilst other industries continued to suffer the effects of the recession, 2010 marked a year of growth for the railways. Last year saw a remarkable 1.3 billion train journeys in Britain. Peacetime rail travel has not been so popular since 1928. One has to wonder what might have been the impetus for this dramatic increase.

There has traditionally been a strong correlation between transport and the economy. The birth of the railways in the early 1800s paved the way for unprecedented expansion. Britain was in the midst of its Industrial Revolution, a time of great technological development. Rail travel meant greater opportunities for trade, as goods could be transported between the major cities. Foreign produce could be delivered from harbour cities to those further inland. Access to the capital was enhanced.

Nonetheless, technology is inherently dynamic. The preeminence of the railways was gradually eroded with the development of the automobile. As cars became more affordable and commonplace, the market for rail travel steadily declined. Correspondingly, the recent reversal seems to reflect the increasing costs of running a car.

Petrol prices rose by 15% throughout 2010. January’s VAT increase saw further increases in fuel prices. The railway industry have responded prudently to this trend, and have begun to offer their customers better deals, particularly on advance tickets. Sales of these rose by 12% last year, drawing the average ticket price for a single journey from £5 to £4.96. The government have made no secret of the fact that 2011 will be a financially difficult year. These small incremental changes have added up to a more attractive railway. As such resurgence of rail travel is likely to continue.

Whilst economic factors are likely to be the principal driving force, customer satisfaction is also vital to its success. Since 1999, the ATOC have conducted a poll to measure this. Last year, a survey of 31,000 rail passengers revealed that 84% were satisfied. This is the highest recorded proportion to date. ATOC have highlighted improvements to services through more frequent services and “historically high punctuality”. Many rail services also offer customers benefits such as the use of a wi-fi connection. These have all combined to make rail travel a more alluring prospect.

To the average commuter this may seem like a surprising outcome. We enjoy complaining about public transport almost as much as evaluating the weather. On a more serious note, one cannot ignore the recent increases in rail fares. It may have an edge over personal transport at the moment, but rising prices threaten to imperil this gain.

This is a dilemma which has been raised by the rail users’ group Passenger Focus. Even taking into account the aforementioned advance tickets, rail fares increased by an average of 6.2% this year. This is not as sharp an increase as the cost of petrol, so ostensibly it remains the more frugal option.

Nonetheless, further increases would place an unacceptable burden on passengers, many of whom have no real alternative. It is increasingly common for families to move out of London. Such people commute to the capital on a daily basis. Driving is not a satisfactory option. The congestion (and its associated charge) as well as the cost of parking could make this inoperable. Rail travel has to provide a viable, affordable alternative if it is to prosper.

Having said that, it seems likely that rail travel will continue to survive in Britain. It is currently experiencing a comparative revival, but it has never been rendered obsolete. The car has not obliterated public transport here as it has in foreign cities such as Los Angeles. The railway is geographically and economically significant to British life.

This has been reflected in our literature. Great works such as Brief Encounter and The Railway Children centre on this theme, lending rail travel its traditionally romantic air. I would be the first to admit that there is (generally) very little romance to being stuck on a delayed train. Nonetheless, I’d rather be able to take the train than not. The rail network has weathered huge political and economic change. We ought to celebrate its renaissance.

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