Number of UK train journeys has doubled since 1997, report finds

The number of train journeys made each year has more than doubled since the late 1990s, according to a new report.

About 1.65bn passenger rail journeys were made in the past 12 months, compared with 801m in 1997. The figures come from analysis by the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators and Network Rail, and is based on data from the auditors KPMG.

The study found that people make an average of 24.7 train journeys each a year, a 60% increase from 1998, when private operators took over running UK train services from British Rail. The growth in journeys is faster than in France at 25%, Germany at 23% and the Netherlands at 10% over the same period.

Union leaders point out, however, that many journeys are made on overcrowded services that users are unhappy with and at considerable expense to the taxpayer for government-funded maintenance and expansion of infrastructure.

The Rail Delivery Group found that fares income covers the £9.5bn annual cost of train services, with government support being used to fund infrastructure. The average price paid per passenger mile has increased by 6.7%, adjusted for inflation since the mid-1990s, and the profit made by operators has fallen from 3.6% of revenue in 1997 to 2.3% last year.

The country’s busiest rail terminals, London’s Waterloo and Victoria stations, have more arrivals per platform at morning peak times than European stations such as Zurich, Frankfurt and the Gare du Nord in Paris.

Edward Welsh, a spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, said the rail network was better able to serve passengers and businesses because of its transformation over the past two decades into what he called a great British success story.

He said: “Crucial to this success has been the partnership between the private and public sectors, working together to deliver better value to passengers, freight customers and the nation.

“There is much more we need to do to improve services for our customers. Our greatest challenge is to plan and build for the ever growing demand for rail by increasing capacity cost effectively and generating revenue to support investment in more and better services.”

The demand for better services has been growing, with rail passengers consistently complaining about annual price rises and overcrowding. Earlier this month, official government figures revealed that the 4.22am Glasgow Central to Manchester airport train, which topped the list of most overcrowded train journeys, counted 355 standard-class passengers on a four-coach train, 86% above its official capacity of 191.

In London’s morning peak time, 139,000 people or 22% of passengers stood during the busiest legs of their journeys. A total of 563,000 passengers arrived in the city, more than a quarter of trains were over capacity and nearly three-fifths had standing passengers .

Mick Whelan, the general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, said: “The railways cost the public purse about £1bn a year under British Rail. That figure has since soared to £4bn a year. That’s the real cost to the taxpayer of privatisation.

“When John Major privatised the railway, he promised three things – competition, innovation and investment. He said competition would drive innovation and investment, but there is no competition.

“With the model we’ve got, the privatised train operating companies all have protected routes, private monopolies. There is precious little innovation. The privatised train companies were against the introduction of Oyster cards and all the investment in the industry comes from central government.

“Fares have gone up, not down. We now have the highest rail fares in Europe, while trains have got more and more crowded to the point where passengers, even those commuters in the south-east of England who usually vote Conservative, are calling for a return of the railways to public ownership.”

Whelan said millions of pounds was “leaking every day from the industry and the country”, money that could be used to bring down fares, ploughed back in investment, or returned – like the £1bn in five years from the east coast mainline – to the Treasury to pay for schools or hospitals or housing.

“There is an enormous public appetite for public ownership in Britain now because we have seen, with the east coast, just how successful a publicly-owned, publicly-run and publicly-accountable railway can be,” he said.

The report comes as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has committed to renationalising the UK’s railways if he becomes the prime minister.

“Like a majority of the population and a majority of even Tory voters, I want the railways back in public ownership,” Corbyn has said. “But public control should mean just that, so we should have passengers, rail workers and government too cooperatively running the railways … in our interests and not for private profit.”


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BDC 303 Apr 2023