Rail passenger growth in the last two decades has been hugely impressive, but it has also been very uneven. We've mapped how passenger numbers have changed across the network. The result says a lot about rail's strengths as well as showing where investment and support are now long overdue.
We have grown accustomed to massive year on year increases in use of the railways. Revenue from ticket sales has grown to £8.8bn. Even with peak fares pegged to the Retail Price Index (ending years of inflation busting fares hikes) new franchises are being let with the expectation that money from ticket sales will continue to rise sharply.
But the reality across the 2,500 plus stations which make up the national rail network is much more complex. Our map, developed by Chris Woods using information published by the Office of Rail and Road shows a number of trends.
First, passenger rail travel is up enormously. In 2014/15, an estimated 2.75bn entries and exists were recorded across the rail network - 1.45 billion more than in 1997/98 (the first year comparable data was collected). There are now 686 stations which attract over 1m entries and exits each year compared with just 215 in 1997/98. Last year 85 stations attracted over 5m journeys – more than four times the number as 1997/98.
Second, the relationship between rail and London is very clear. The map shows scores of ever busier stations in Greater London itself and the snaking tentacles of commuter lines stretching away from the capital. While you might expect to see larger stations like St Albans and Cambridge have growth of well over 100 per cent, in percentage terms this is matched or exceeded by strings of stations like those running through Hertfordshire to London Kings Cross, where Baldock, Letchworth, Hitchin, Welwyn Garden City have all seen passenger number double since 1997. The Government is facilitating this trend with big investments like Crossrail and potentially Crossrail 2. But with fares high and overcrowding a significant problem, efforts to spread the morning peak and improve affordability are of increasing urgency.
Other cities have shared London’s pattern of passenger growth – from the point of view of the map at least. Rail commuting into Manchester and across Merseyside has seen strong growth. This is now being supported with investment including electrification and upgraded rolling stock. On the flip side large urban settlements like Hull have weak rail links and have only slow growth in passengers. Over the last 15 years, stations nearby like Cottingham have seen passenger numbers fall. Promises of HS3, electrifications and new trains cannot be delivered soon enough.
Hull 's predicament hints at another problem - investment that follows existing patterns rather than assessing strategic case. Existing appraisal techniques focus investment and development where there is existing demand, rather than where benefits could be biggest. It is relatively easy to make a case for investment that will meet the needs of south east commuters, much harder to argue for the reintroduction of rail services in the parts of the country where they have been lost – and the map shows large areas where rail services are sparse.
With resources for the next Control Period likely to be significantly tightened, the pressure could be on smaller stations which are used regularly by only a few hundred people. The experience of the post Beeching period is that closing such stations can be short-sighted. Not only is it very difficult to get them reopened, stations like Whitlock’s End (West Midlands) and Needham Market (Suffolk) show how rapid growth can be from humble beginnings – both having seen 13-fold increases in passengers since 1997.
A map cannot tell the whole story about the renaissance in rail, but it does show the significant and growing contribution trains make to the transport mix. We have a large and increasingly well-used network. In planning for the future, we should be braver both in anticipating the potential for growth and in getting more places onto the network.
Data underpinning the map is gathered by consultants Steer, Davies, Gleave for the Office for Rail and Road. Taken as a piece, it allows a view of how rail use has evolved over the last 18 years. Given the billions of journeys involved, there have been refinements to the methodology. More details about this can be found on the ORR website.