Quietly, outside of the public gaze, a revolution has started on Britain’s railways. On March 23, COVID-19 destroyed the railway industry as it had existed for the past 25 years. As concerns about virus transmission grew, passenger numbers reduced by 80% before the official lockdown even began. The private companies running train services were broke and the UK government took control, effectively bringing an end to the failed franchise model. As our research has shown, services have to be capable to survive – even in the best of times.
Many organisations, such as the Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) stated that COVID-19 was a temporary blip to the ongoing success of the railways. But more economically informed parts of the transport industry know that this is not the case. Even the chief executive of Network Rail, Andrew Haines, believes the UK is “at a time of industry change”.
We could be entering another golden age of railway travel. One in which passengers actually have space around them to relax and perhaps even work. This would see railway passenger levels returning to those experienced between 1960 and 1999 of around 750 million annual journeys – much lower than the 2020 peak of 1,800 million.