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Is rail still important?

In this general election year, this question needs to be raised. Is rail still regarded favourably?

I was once told by Tim Yeo MP that there are 150 parliamentary constituencies for whom commuting by rail really matters, coming up routinely at MP surgeries. Covid will have chipped away at this figure. Eighteen months of on-off strikes won’t have helped us either.

So I have to ask: is rail still important?


Research by my colleagues at Steer for the Railway Industry Association suggests full demand recovery from the pandemic will happen… but not until 2027-2030. And revenue recovery will be a little later still.

So, we can expect Treasury to be grumpy with us a while longer, whoever is in Government. As the new chair of the High Speed Rail Group, Dyan Perry, has said: ‘rail is on the naughty step, and we need to get off it’. But that won’t happen overnight.

We’re now at 90% of immediate pre-Covid passenger levels. The Steer research suggests an underlying annual rail demand growth rate ahead of +1.6%.

But I’d suggest just a couple of good things – an end to industrial action and a new, understandable fares policy, for example – could see an increase to (say) 3% per annum growth. That wouldn’t be as high as pre-Covid rates (which averaged 3.7% over 25 years), but it does mean a doubling of passenger numbers by 2050.

Sceptics 25 years ago thought rail couldn’t handle a doubling of passenger volumes. We can prove them wrong again. You and your rail industry colleagues made this 25-year expansion possible. So, take a bow. A simply astonishing achievement. Critics who think rail inflexible and unfashionable: it’s time to note the dynamism this industry is capable of.

It was your endeavours [IMechE Rail Division guests] that provided the engineering know-how to support growth, and you did so at higher levels of safety. Innovation year after year.


Back in the 1990s when advising Virgin Trains, I worried that the Pendolinos’ ‘deployable step’ would prove to be the trains’ Achilles Heel.

But no, GEC-Alstom ensured it worked dependably at every station call, along with the new active tilt supervision system. Innovative, reliable.

Amtrak chief, Stephen Gardner, visiting the UK in 2012, told me this: ‘nowhere else will you find a 20 minute-interval intercity service linking the major cities. It’s fantastic’.

Yes, West Coast trebled demand in just 16 years.

Carlisle, Pendolino heads south, August 2015. Photo Greengauge 21

Take another example.  Where else would you find an entire region achieving a total switch to level-boarding for passengers, as at Greater Anglia? Genuinely transformational. So much to be proud of.

I sense talking to people here today that the ‘family’ feel of BR lives on. But it’s no longer a monolith. We see excitingly different developments in Wales and Scotland, rightly, in my view, run with devolved powers. It still all joins up as far as customers are concerned. And while for freight, funding support has diminished, we have private sector operators that have managed a huge transformation in market focus.

A rail sector that is dependable, adaptable, innovative.


But there is now a battle of minds to be won, to show once again that rail has a future, a real purpose, and a growing role: and that’s what I want to cover here. To show why rail, while accounting for only 10% of travel, really matters, and needs to be at the centre of transport policy.

If asked, many people would say of the future for transport:

‘sure, we’ll just all switch to electric vehicles. Better, cheaper…’

When we do all switch, average car running costs will fall by 44% by 2050. Because there’s no fuel duty on electricity, indeed it’s discounted if charging overnight.

But that means HM Treasury would lose £40bn annually in tax revenue from petrol/diesel road vehicles. So that’s not going to happen.

And there’s a second problem: with no taxes or replacement charges, road traffic levels would increase creating unacceptable levels of road congestion. It can’t be a free-for-all.


As research published this week shows, travel in an electric car emits twice as much carbon as by electrified rail. Of course it does: rolling resistance, for a start.

Unlike with rail, we have no fixes for highway capacity. We stopped building major new roads after the Newbury bypass, 30 years ago.

Smart motorways were meant to add capacity, but have been done so poorly, on a cut-price basis.

Have sympathy with the politicians who need to introduce a road user charges to replace today’s fuel taxes. And realise that this is, for us, an opportunity: we can help! Make road user charging possible, even.


Making motorists pay more is extremely sensitive policy territory. It’s the great unmentionable. The Brexit of transport policy.

Remember, chancellors have failed to raise fuel duty for 23 years. Government will be desperately searching around for a palliative when road user charges come in, to sweeten the pill.

A better rail offer is just the carrot they will need, when the time comes for the stick.

Know this : I’d rather be in the rail division of IMechE, than in automotive. Part of the solution, not the problem.


People will switch travel modes. According to recent research by the Campaign for Better Transport,

  • 79 per cent of car drivers would use public transport more if it was ‘better’, and
  • 90 per cent of them want to see a bigger rail network.

And this week, a survey from Hitachi Rail: Londoners prefer rail travel to both car and plane over longer distances.

People have travel choices, and they favour rail. Still.


Realistically, mode shift to rail ‘works’ when two criteria are met:

  • Big travel markets – trainloads not car loads
  • Over longer distances.

Because, let’s face it: cars and vans are very convenient for short hops, while rail is rarely as conveniently placed.

Let’s take a brief look at these large travel markets for rail.


Cities – simply, they now can’t exist without rail networks.

London & the South East  now has a brilliant cross-connected S-Bahn/RER network (Crossrail + Thameslink): Cambridge, Reading, Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Brighton, etc…. all with an easy-to-use intersection at Farringdon. It’s the unadvertised rail alternative to the M25 for SE England.  Great for mode switching. (And a shame it’s not being promoted as such).

But our largest regional cities have been neglected. They are uncompetitive as a consequence. They simply don’t offer the commuting capacity available across equivalent cities in Europe.

Rail can boost regional city economies across GB: and this is the holy grail for policy-makers.

The rail network generally has its “nodes” in cities, in city centres. Here is where there is most need for modernisation, with more capacity. The major rebuilds of London Bridge, St Pancras and Reading are, in my view, better exemplars for the North and Midlands than London’s Crossrail.


I said rail works over longer distances.  The measure that shapes how travel markets behave is the Trip Length Distribution.

Think about travel in Britain: walk, cycle, car, bus, train… Most journeys are short. Many are walk trips. Overall, car dominates. Most car trips are local too. The truth is, for most journeys rail is sadly irrelevant.

But, in a statistical graph of trip length distribution, there’s a very long tail to the right. We make a lot of short trips and just a few long journeys each year.

Long distance travel – say over 50 miles –  is where rail gets a real look in, where it’s competitive. It is here that rail allows businesses to grow and operate easily across multiple city regions. locate regionally, serve the whole nation.

Is it a worry that these longer journeys over 50 miles account for only 2% of the trips we make each year?

No, because – and here’s the big take-away – that 2% accounts for between and of our annual travel mileage.

For 25-30% of travel, rail is competitive and in demand. This is where mode shift can and needs to happen. More capacity, more and longer trains, will be needed on our national rail system.


Rail is a network and needs to be planned accordingly. Project by project within an overall, updatable plan.

Goodness knows, we might even get large scale housing growth plans tied into train stations, rather than at yet more roundabouts as per the last 75 years…

So, to sum up.

The next government needs to be told about and to seize the opportunity rail offers.

We are essential to meeting wider Government objectives around the economy and to continuing the good progress made on climate change.

The transport sector is still the largest source of carbon emissions (28% of the total); but rail accounts for just 1½% of transport carbon. Even with a network only half-electrified.

This is a big, big, opportunity. Better rail, giving a boost to city economies and  to environmental outcomes.

And freight – where your automotive sector chums are struggling against the laws of physics, trying to decarbonise long-haul 44T HGVs.

And over really long distance markets, making rail the obvious choice rather than flying. London-Glasgow/Edinburgh is Europe’s largest domestic air market.

It shouldn’t be.

Presented by Jim Steer, Director, Greengauge 21 at the IMechE Rail Division Annual Lunch, Grosvenor House, London on 1st March 2024 .

We actively encourage people to use our work, and simply request that the use of any of our material is credited to Greengauge 21 in the following way: Greengauge 21, Title, Date.