It’s vital that trains are an attractive choice as the economy reopens

By Jacqueline Starr

The latest work from home guidance has lifted and there is an attitude among many people that it is time we learned to live with Covid. For some this means a welcome return to the office, which can already be seen in the numbers. But the picture is not a universal one. Against this backdrop, businesses and their employees the length and breadth of the country are casting their minds ahead to what ‘the new normal’ looks like.

The nature of the return to work, which will take shape over the coming months, will have profound consequences. For the small businesses and retailers that rely on the £16.7bn that rail commuters spend each year, in London alone. For the companies that own that own thousands of square feet of office space that has lain largely empty in towns and cities. For the families readjusting to a life where parents commute again, at least for part of the week.

The world as we knew it before the pandemic has fundamentally changed. The reasons for which people travel have shifted. In the near term, this means more leisure travel as people get back to doing things they’ve missed. There will be fewer commuters as many more people work more flexibly. There may also be less business travel as, while people will want to get back out and meet clients face-to-face, many meetings will remain online.

While nobody is advocating a wholesale return to the past, there is a huge benefit to real life, in-person human interaction. It provides the spark of creativity, the ideas and the relationships on which growth is built.

It would be damaging if the pendulum swung too far in the direction of working from home. To help prevent that from happening, the rail industry has a responsibility to make sure that trains are an attractive choice.

That’s why, over the coming weeks, operators will be running more trains as passengers gradually return. But, with government support to keep the train running during the pandemic topping £16bn so far, they must do this in a way that recognises the cost implications of running trains that are half empty. For now, while people are making fewer journeys than in the past, we must balance the importance of running a frequent service with the number of people traveling, so that the railway doesn’t take more than its fair share from taxpayers. That said,  in most cases there is ample room on board, with over 19,500 trains running a day and 15,300 trains worth of passengers using them.

As well as how frequent their train is, it will also matter to passengers that they arrive on time and can easily buy the best value fare. The industry is improving here too. During the pandemic, better spacing of trains in the timetable means trains have been much more punctual and we are determined to see this trend continue.

On fares, we have used the period of the pandemic to expand the availability of digital tickets, making it easier for people to pay. This includes working with government to roll out flexi-season tickets, which offer flexible workers a discount on their previous monthly ticket. We are also working with government to invest £360m in more tap-in-tap-out systems across the country.

There have also been improvements in the information we provide to passengers, with the expansion of the National Rail Alert Me service, which tells passengers if there is disruption to their journey or their train is busy and offers an alternative route.

But there is more to do as a sector.We know how important it is to the communities we serve, to the environment and to the nation’s recovery that we do all we can do to get people back on board.

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