Travel trends in England: what’s happening to rail demand?

Travel trends in England: what’s happening to rail demand?

A new research study into travel trends challenges old assumptions about travel behaviour, reveals Matthew Niblett…


Forecasts of travel demand have struggled to predict recent trends in road and rail travel in the UK. To explore these changing trends the Independent Transport Commission (ITC), a leading research charity, has devoted one of its work streams to uncovering what has been happening to patterns of land-based travel demand and why.  The most recent research project in this work stream has been using National Travel Survey (NTS) data to unpick the patterns of road and rail travel trends in England over a 20-year period between 1995 and 2014.

The ITC report – Recent trends in road and rail travel: What do they tell us? – was based on research commissioned from statistical experts Gordon Stokes and Peter Headicar. For consistency, the study was able to explore travel trends in England only, due to the recent devolution of the collection of transport statistics to the home nations. The research updated an earlier ITC report that looked at travel trends before the Great Recession in 2008-09. The focal point of this new work has been on the travel behaviour of individuals rather than on the aggregate trends.

Assumptions about the drivers of travel demand have traditionally focused on three key areas: income, the cost of travel and population growth (or the number of travellers). However, it became evident in the mid-2000’s that car travel patterns, in particular, were not behaving as predicted: in spite of rising incomes and stagnant motoring costs, per capita car use appeared to be levelling off or falling, particularly among younger people. At the same time there was an explosion in rail travel demand after the mid-1990’s, well beyond what would have been expected from income and cost changes. The new ITC study has been exploring this phenomenon during and since the Great Recession. If traditional assumptions held, we would have expected to see a steep fall in both road and rail travel during the period of the recession, with a recovery thereafter as demand increased alongside recovering incomes.

Findings surprising

The findings from the ITC research are surprising. The report reveals that the overall total miles travelled by English residents did peak in 2007 before falling sharply in 2008-09, and stabilising at this lower level. However, this aggregate trend needs to be read in the context of rapid population growth (which increased in England by almost 12 per cent between 1995 and 2014). As a result, the per capita (individual) weekly distance travelled is actually now 10 per cent lower than in the mid-2000’s. These overall trends mask striking differences among different modes of travel. Per capita car travel has failed to recover strongly since 2007, and has continued to fall significantly in towns and cities. On the other hand, when we look at rail travel, the average rail mileage per person has continued to rise sharply, with only a brief pause during the recession, in spite of stagnant incomes and above-inflation rail fare rises until 2014. The ITC’s conclusion is that the historic correlations between incomes, costs and travel are weakening, and there appear to be wider forces at play shaping behaviour.

Drilling further into the rail figures, the research provides a clearer picture of ridership trends. Young adults (17-34) particularly favour rail travel compared to other age groups, both in terms of the percentage that use rail and the distance they travel, with annual rail passenger miles per adult almost three times higher for this group than for seniors (over 60). Strikingly, however, the growth in rail travel over the past 20 years has almost wholly come from a higher percentage of the population travelling, rather than existing travellers making more trips or travelling further. The research indicates that rail travel has significantly increased since 1995 across all income quintiles, although people from the richest quintile still travel twice as far by rail in terms of miles per year than any other income group. There are also clear differences in terms of rail travel depending on whether travellers live in rural or urban areas. The ITC research shows rapid growth in rail travel distance per person over the past 20 years in London and the largest built-up areas, but almost no growth at all by those living in rural areas and small settlements (under 3,000).

Further research urgent

The ITC was particularly intrigued by the discovery that that the huge growth in rail travel is attributable to a much higher proportion of the population using rail rather than to an increased frequency of travel by individual users or to longer average trip distances. This begs the question whether there is a natural limit to the percentage of the population that will travel by rail, and therefore an upper limit to the rapid growth in rail travel seen in recent decades? The need for further research into this question is urgent, and the ITC will be exploring this through a new study over the course of the coming year.

Dr Matthew Niblett is director of the Independent Transport Commission

2017-01-25T11:02:39+00:00 January 25th, 2017|December 2017|