Rail passenger journeys rise again

Railnews’ editor Alan Marshall examines the latest passenger figures…..

Pressure on rail capacity continues — as annual passenger count sets 1.5 billion record

Passenger journeys GB annual data

Passenger journeys GB annual data

THE day before the High Court ruling that means planning for HS2 can proceed while consultation on compensation is re-run, another significant  — but less publicized — announcement was made by the Office of Rail Regulation.

On 14 March the ORR published rail usage statistics showing that over 385 million passenger journeys were made on Britain’s railways in the third quarter of 2012-13 (1 October – 31 December 2012) – 14 million (3.8 per cent) more than the same period the year before.

The ORR said rail passenger usage was “at record levels” — but because of its tendency to work in financial rather than calendar years ORR omitted to give the total for 2012.  But by adding together the figures for 2011-12’s Q4 with those for 2012-13’s Q1, 2 and 3, we find the total number of journeys in 2012 amounted to 1,508.8 million.

This is the first time the figure of 1.5 billion has been surpassed in a peacetime year since comparable records started 90 years ago, after the ‘Big Four’ railways were created in 1923 — when the network was much larger than it is today.

It is also somewhat ironical that the latest figures have been published in the month marking the 50th anniversary of publication of Dr Beeching’s first report on ‘The Reshaping of Britain’s Railways’ — resulting in many branch line closures — which was followed by his second report on rationalizing the trunk lines, which lead to the closure of significant long-distance routes . . . including concentrating much traffic onto the West Coast Main Line.

Of course, it is the WCML — and its southern section, in particular — for which HS2’s first stage to Birmingham and to Lichfield (where it will rejoin the existing main line to the North West and Scotland) is intended to provide relief in anticipation of the route becoming overloaded by the early 2020s.

The projections for the number of passengers likely to use HS2 and to justify its construction have been based on what HS2 Ltd’s chairman Douglas Oakervee calls “a very conservative estimate” of just two per cent per annum.

But in the past decade growth in passenger numbers has averaged 4.1 per cent.

In fact, the industry’s recently published future rolling stock strategy shows that rail passenger travel since privatization in 1997 has almost DOUBLED with a 91 per cent increase — the highest among all the principal European railways.

The scale of the problem ahead can be seen if we project forward last year’s total of 1.508 billion journeys.

If growth continues only at HS2’s “conservative” assumption of two per cent a year, the annual total will nevertheless reach 2 billion — a THIRD HIGHER than last year – by 2025, just before HS2 is due to open for business. 

But if growth continues at the current rate of four per cent a year, the 2 billion total will be reached as early as 2020 — and by 2025 will surpass 2.5 billion passengers, TWO THIRDS MORE than last year.

No wonder Network Rail says HS2 is absolutely essential and that, without it, there is no Plan B.


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