What effect will home-working have on the railways?

Travel is still soaring. More people are using the trains, there is no let up on the roads and even the buses, at least in London, are booming. The predictions that the internet, conference calling and other new telecommunications technology will reduce the demand for travel never seem to materialise. But is there now, at last, a whiff of change in the air?

A couple of years ago, a South West Trains executive confided in me that the company was worried about a reduction in the number of people buying season tickets. Commuters were now buying daily returns because they were only travelling three or four days a week and working at home at other times.

But the trend is not really significant. South West Trains say that there season ticket income has consistently remained at around 40 per cent of total revenue over the past few years. The only change is that there are fewer annual tickets and more weekly and monthly ones.

Nationally, the picture is of a small decline in the percentage of income from season tickets. The Association of Train Operating Companies says that he trend is very slightly downwards – the proportion of revenue from season tickets has declined from 27.7 per cent of revenue in 95/96 to 25.9 per cent in 03/04, which is quite significant given that levels of employment in London, the key area for season tickets, have being soaring. But remember, all this is in the context of an overall rise in rail usage with much encouragement of off-peak travel by some of the former InterCity companies.

It certainly does not suggest that the breakthrough in homeworking that has been presaged for the past couple of decades is happening. But will broadband, and the other new technologies allowing much more flexible telephony now do the trick?

From anecdotal evidence, I think it might begin make a real difference. More companies must surely realise the enormous savings they can make from not having to provide a desk for every worker.

BT, not surprisingly, is a leader in this field. About 10 per cent of its employees are registered as home based teleworkers and more than 60 per cent have flexible work arrangements allowing them to work away from home some of the time. Consequently, BT’s company car fleet has reduced in size and it has cut is number of London based desk spaces from 10,000 to 3,000, saving millions of pounds.

The implications for transport infrastructure if other companies followed suit would be enormous. If the peak level of demand could be reduced, then we may not need lots of increased capacity. Research by the University of Bradford suggests that homeworking and other soft measures such as workplace and school travel plans and car clubs could reduce peak demand by between 4 per cent, if there is low take up, to as much as 17 per cent.

It is the effect on peak demand that is crucial. While people work at home some of the time still require transport on those days, their needs are different. They may pop round to the local shop or drop in on friends or go the local gym. Many of those type of journeys may not be easily undertaken on public transport and therefore the overall environmental effects of homeworking may not be as positive as first imagined. But, importantly, there is less demand for peak time travel – no one is mug enough to go to the gym at 8 30am if they do not have to.

All this raises a wealth of issues. In its recent publication Broadband – the role of communications in beating congestion, BT suggests that transport and communications should be considered together by government as happens in Finland. That would require a high degree of joined up government, an expression that somehow seems no longer to be in New Labour’s lexicon.

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