Rail services in the north 'enjoying best performance ratings in years' as passenger numbers drop

A Northern trainA Northern train
A Northern train
Rail services in the north of England are performing better than they have for many years because of the huge drop in demand seen during the pandemic, a report has revealed.

Transport for the North says that demand for trains across the region has fallen to around 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, in part because of the number of commuters embracing home working.

But with train operators like Northern and TransPennine having restored between 80 and 90 per cent of their services, it says there is “an obvious mismatch between the cost of running services and the number of passengers benefitting”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The Department for Transport has taken on franchise holders’ revenue and cost risks since March, at a cost to taxpayers of at least £3.5 billion.

A report to be discussed by northern leaders this week says: “Whilst the Government is picking up the extra subsidy required in the short term, there will clearly be pressure to reduce the taxpayer burden to more sustainable levels.”

The document, by TfN’s Head of Rail Specification & Delivery David Worsley, says that the extra capacity created by having more trains allowed passengers to socially distance and helped build confidence for people to travel by rail.

But the changes in travel patterns such as the massive increase in flexible home working “mean that the previous assumptions about demand increasing to near normal levels within 1-2 years may no longer hold”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The report adds: “There are also signs of a more profound shift in commuting patterns, with the morning peak no longer being the main driver for resources and capacity that is then utilised throughout the day.

“The afternoon period is currently where the greatest (albeit significantly lower than previously) demand is being seen.

“A positive outcome of the lower demand and reduced service levels is a railway which is performing at a significantly better level than has been seen for many years in the North of England; maintaining this to help rebuild confidence will be important.”

Mr Worsley says the possibility of more local restrictions mean the levels of future demand for trains in the north are uncertain.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But he says: “It is important that Transport for the North, and other bodies, engage in the medium and longer term thinking about rebuilding demand as a means of reducing unnecessary costs, and matching services to actual demand levels.

“Such action is a pre-requisite to ensuring that the railway is sustainable going forward.”

Despite uncertainty over future demand, Transport for the North is looking at how the railways will get passengers back in the medium to long term.

Pre-pandemic, in response to mounting concerns about poor performance and overcrowding across the north, industry officials had been looking at which services provided the most cause for concern.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A number of promises made about improvements to services when the franchises were handed out to Northern and TransPennine had not been kept, meaning capacity was below what was expected.

And with the hope that the timetables changes in December and May will bring more services back, operators will meet with public sector officials next month to tackle any issues.

In September, the Department for Transport announced that rail franchising had been “ended” by extending measures introduced to keep trains running after the coronavirus outbreak.

Operators like TransPennine Express have been moved to “transitional contracts” ahead of the creation of a “simpler and more effective structure” which will be developed over the coming months, the DfT said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Significant taxpayer support will still be needed” under the new Emergency Recovery Management Agreements (ERMAs), the DfT said.

Rail firms will continue to be paid a management fee for running services, but under the ERMAs it will be a maximum of up to 1.5 per cent of the franchise cost base, rather than two per cent under the Emergency Measures Agreements introduced in March.