Who is going to save the railways?

An emergency situation requires an emergency response. So far we have seen little sign of it. Passengers numbers remain at a fraction of 2019 levels and despite the change in messaging from ‘don’t use the railways’ to ‘use them if you are careful’, they are likely to remain depressed for many years to come.

The government has recognised that the old franchising model is dead but is deeply opposed to any idea of a full scale renationalisation and instead is developing a revised version of the sort of management contracts which have been successfully used on the London Overground and Merseyrail. These successes, however, were down to having an ‘informed client’ – in other words the organisation which was contracting out services knew precisely what it wanted and was able to police the contract effectively.

The Department for Transport has no such record, as witnessed by the multiple franchise failures and failings. Therefore, the railways need a new structure that ensures there is a railway organisation that is not under direct control of the Department. It needs a considerable level of independence, as British Rail had and be run by people with long term railway experience.

If ever there was a time for strategic thinking, it is now. While some of the railway managers I talk to realise the depth of the crisis that the railways are in, others reckon it will blow over and that things will return to normal, as they did quickly following the financial crisis of the 2008.

I’m afraid that these optimists are wrong. It will take an enormous effort to reassure people that the railways are safe to use. Moreover, many people will have discovered that they can work from home. I doubt many will do that five days per week but I also suspect that few people will happily return to a five day commute if they can at all avoid it. Having used the technology and adapted their homes to working there, there will be the clear temptation not to go into the office every day.

In terms of leisure travel, the impact will also be long term. Many people will have reverted to using their cars when, say, visiting relatives or going to their second homes. With fear of getting infected still apparent, they may remain using their four wheels.

That’s why a huge campaign, with all ‘stakeholders’ playing a part, is essential. ‘Getting back on track’ must be a key message and Railfuture has a crucial role to play here. We must use our local media as much as possible to reinforce the message that the railways are safe – studies have shown that there is no evidence local outbreaks have come from using rail – and still retain all the advantages that made them grow so rapidly over the past 20 years. Government obviously has the key role in stimulating this campaign, and one essential component will be a more coherent fares structure geared towards people getting value for money.

Make no mistake. This is a key moment for the future of the railways. Unless people return to the existing railway in great numbers, the case for reopenings and expansion will swiftly be undermined. Talk of ‘reversing Beeching’ will be laughed at in the Treasury which will kill off any potential schemes.