YOU’VE probably noticed the increase in trains recently. Where there used to be the odd one running, they’re now almost constant, all day, every day. I don’t mean rail services, of course – you’ll be lucky to find any running, given that around 300 were cancelled on Sunday alone. I mean television programmes about rail. There are now whole channels dedicated to them.

There’s Michael Portillo, who started the whole thing off, and has exhausted not just the UK network, but every other set of points on the globe. Since he has, I don’t really understand why Bill Nighy, Chris Tarrant, Julie Walters, Tony Robinson and others should have programmes that seem to do exactly the same thing. Yet there they are, dominating the schedules, in between shows about railway architecture, heritage railways and forgotten bits of the London Underground.

I admit they’re somehow compelling, in an odd sort of way, even if you haven’t really got much interest in trains themselves. In this they resemble their subject matter; a lot of us like travelling by train, without feeling the need to know anything about track gauges or rolling stock.

Or at least we did, until recently. Over the two decades since the privatisation of the railways in 1994, demand more than doubled, and was increasing by around 3.5 per cent every year. Government funding in 2019 was up almost nine per cent, and private investment at £1.1 billion (the second-highest ever). Punctuality improved, freight use increased, and the number of passenger journeys rose. In 2019-20, there were 1.7 billion rail journeys undertaken across the UK. Then came Covid.

READ MORE: Back on track: Fifty years on, are the famous ‘Beeching cuts’ to Scotland’s railways finally being reversed?

The number of journeys the following year fell to 388 million, a whopping 77 per cent reduction. That’s also the lowest-ever number since anyone started counting, 140 years ago. There were obviously exceptional circumstances – the government had instructed everyone to stay at home, after all. But when the country began to open up again, there was still a very substantial reduction in rail use; in the final quarter of last year, it was just over 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

Most of this impact seems to have come in commuting. By contrast, non-work-related long distance rail journeys – the East Coast Main Line (ECML) that runs from Edinburgh to London is the prime example – seem to have held up relatively well. But overall, Monday to Friday peak-time journeys are 15 per cent of the previous totals, the number of journeys made using season tickets is 30 per cent of the figure two years ago, half of all rail travel is now for leisure, rather than work (that used to be between a quarter and a third), and commuter travel on a Friday is half what it was.

As the chaos over the weekend on the ScotRail network demonstrates, the railways have plenty of problems besides this spectacular fall in commuting numbers (which is mostly concentrated in London and the South East). A shortage of drivers is one, compounded by the reliance on them working overtime or on rest days. The Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth has said she wants to phase out relying on rest day working but, since it’s currently voluntary, it’s not surprising that Aslef’s reaction should be to argue that changes in conditions and contracts should go hand in hand with concessions on pay.

What is does indicate is that nationalisation, in itself, is no magic bullet for sorting out the problems facing rail. It’s rather odd that the Scottish government hadn’t anticipated that, as well as the obvious political consequence that, in the absence of doing, or even having a plan to do, something that improves the service, all that happens is that customers’ dissatisfaction gets directed at them. It’s true that rail nationalisation is generally electorally popular (probably the most popular of the proposed nationalisations), but that state of affairs isn’t going to last if the net result is a worse service – the outcome that those of us who remember British Rail might expect.

But, as the transport analyst Tony Lodge argues, in a new paper published by the Centre for Policy Studies, if we don’t urgently address the new patterns created by the pandemic, there will have to be one of three outcomes: a huge rise in fares, a huge increase in government subsidy (which he thinks will amount to a penny on income tax), or cuts in lines and services on a scale not seen since Dr Beeching took his axe to the network 60 years ago.

Despite the fact that pre-pandemic commuters were packed into peak time trains like sardines, there was always quite a lot of inefficiency in the way railways ran. Mr Lodge points out that 45 million seats a month – equivalent to the population of Argentina – were going unused. Now that commuting is over-supplied, as remote working becomes the norm, leisure travel, which is still on the rise, is under-catered.

That necessitates a major shift in what the rail companies offer their customers, and the first priority must be to do something about the frankly insane ticket structure across the railways. Peak pricing, given changing patterns, should be abolished. There are now 2,700 different types of ticket, under more than a thousand different names, and they impose widely divergent fares. An “Anytime” ticket from Derby to London (129 miles) costs £211.50; the same ticket from Newcastle to London (283 miles) costs £118.

In an age when tech makes it possible to regularise such anomalies, and when ticketing could easily live in the cloud and be accessed by phone, that’s even more absurd. And at a time when rail (both for passenger journeys and freight) offers the best hope of reducing transport-related carbon costs, it’s bonkers that we’re not moving faster on such a basic reform. There is huge scope for freight growth, with obvious revenue and environmental benefits.

The lesson of the ECML, oddly enough, is that it’s not nationalisation but more competition and companies that gives the best services and the lowest fares. Unlike the West Coast Main Line, or Great Western or Midland Mainline, which are monopolies, the ECML has “open access”, in which companies compete for slots, without any government subsidy. Besides the government-run LNER, three other companies now provide 20 per cent of those services, and customers are happier, fares are cheaper and revenues are up. But there must be more change on these lines, or the rail companies will find themselves mulling over the fact that many of the programmes I mentioned earlier are shown on a channel called Yesterday.

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