Edmund Caldecott, CEO of Whoosh, explains how the government should get people back onboard the rail for environmental and economic reasons

Whether we like it or not, rail travel is back. In fact, the latest statistics demonstrate that 182 million journeys were made in Great Britain between April and June this year. That’s more than five times more than during the same period last year whilst under travel restrictions. However, these latest figures are just 41.6 per cent of what they were two years ago.

Every commuter will testify that rail travel is back to normal as they hop onto an overcrowded service which has been quiet for the last couple of months. Typically, the UK had some of the busiest rails in Europe and therefore with minimal help, the industry could reach pre-pandemic highs and reap the wider economic and environmental benefits of this. For example, according to the Railway Industry Association, use of the UK rail network is typically around 60 per cent higher than the EU average.

While passenger numbers have bounced back, there still remains a long and challenging route to pre-pandemic highs. On the other hand, this is without a doubt necessary as the Government looks to help the country recover economically from the pandemic whilst being at the forefront of promoting environmentalism.

While the William-Shapps plan has largely been well-received (thanks to its ambitious aims to deliver passenger-orientated travel), many still believe that it is simply not enough to fully modernise the British rail network. Fundamentally, rail travel has long been neglected in favour of other forms of transport and therefore it must be incentivised.

Whoosh, the travel-tech firm which offers journey improving tech platforms has recently found that despite government initiatives, there are some fundamental issues for customers which are limiting travellers getting back onboard. Essentially, the British public feel that operators do not have their best interests at heart. For example, a quarter of rail customers complain of crashing websites or apps getting in the way and one in five rail users find it difficult to get the information they need.

Enter: The Real-Time Journey Dashboard, accessed via QR codes, which solves gripes and delivers on what travellers want during their journey through sharing real-time updates bespoke to each journey direct to customers’ smart phones. This can include live train running info; station departure boards; refreshments delivered straight to your seat; goodwill gestures for service disruption; and onward travel departure details.

Environmentally, there has never been a more urgent need for Britain to get people back on track. Travel is an unavoidable part of life and the pandemic proved to us that we would never want to avoid it. But it comes with a cost, and more and more of us are becoming concerned with the environmental impacts of our journeys. Train travel offers a greener way to travel as the least carbon-intensive mode of transport and emits 80 per cent less gas emissions than cars. Promoting this shift could be a valuable tool for the government to meet its commitment to zero emissions by 2050.

It is obviously clear that every sector and aspect of life was affected by Covid-19 and the question remains over which aspects will be back to normal. For example, we ask whether the 2019 research by the Department of Transport which found that that whilst car was still the nation’s preferred mode of transport, the rate of rail usage was going up faster than any other form of transport will continue with usage more than doubling since the mid-1990s. Therefore, as the roads get busier, rail travel should be incentivised to get the British public back on track.

Economically speaking, rail is fantastic for the UK. It complements remote working. People can be productive onboard through the option for many people to be productive onboard, especially with increased connectivity. The interconnected nature of the UK combined with hybrid-working means previous-office workers can live outside London. This supports one of Johnson’s governments key pledges; to level up the north-south divide. The extent of this was illustrated by the Williams review which declared that in 2019 around 50 per cent of journeys are taken by commuters

In the same review it was found that 25 per cent of rail traffic was for pleasure. Although the statistics are not yet reported, it is likely that this will be significantly higher now post the staycation-boom. The interconnected nature of the rail network was vital in spreading the tourist-pound, helping hotspots thrive through what could have been two very bleak peak seasons.

By the Government encouraging the British public to get back onboard, they can capitalise on the public’s recently found love of ‘slow-travel’. Especially, as the price of flying is continually on the rise and is deemed far less convenient. A continued demand for ‘staycationing’ can provide the UK huge financial and environmental benefits and aid the country in building a sustainable economy and long-lasting job opportunities which are critically needed.

Another pressing economic issue for the current government has been Brexit and the chaos caused by it. This has been thrown into the spotlight in recent weeks with the consequence of a shortage of HGV drivers causing extensive queues at petrol stations with more like this predicted to happen in the upcoming months. Subsequently, demand for freight services is growing, with 4.33 billion net tonne kilometres moved by rail this quarter, a figure 1.3 per cent higher than two years ago.

The current shortage of HGV drivers has shown us how reliant we are as a country on reliable and continuous deliveries. If current systems are not able to meet demands the rail industry could position itself to take up the strain.

Earlier this year, we were thrilled to receive funding from The Department for Transport alongside Innovate UK who have invested almost £25 million into the ‘First of a Kind’ fund. This competition has been introduced as a result of the government’s focus on rail to boost the country’s economy and environmental efforts through facilitating the development of several critical projects. This is a fantastic initiative which emphasises the government’s recent determination to meet the aforementioned environmental and economic potential. This funding enabled Whoosh’s Real-Time Journey Dashboard to be put onboard Grand Central Trains, hence highlighting not only the government’s commitment but that of this particular Train Operating Company.

Through supporting customer-centric demands such as the Innovate UK competition did, the onboard experience can be more enjoyable and a worthy competition to car. The fundamental success of this small change can already be seen with the platform across the Yorkshire-based Grand Central trains, being scanned by 68 per cent of passengers a day at its launch.

This brings us onto the point that at the core, getting people back onboard trains is an issue not just for the government but for the sector itself. Both the private and public aspects should work to give each individual a clear reason to board the train whether that be for convenience, reliability or price. While all the administrative changes in the world can be made to rail oversight bodies and operator contracts, the simple truth is that rail travel must make itself an attractive transport option.

While rail operators may feel they are doing all they can to cater to customer needs, there will always be areas where improvements can be made. One of these is the quality of communication the passenger receives. For some passengers the idea of a rail journey can conjure memories of train delays and lengthy waits, accompanied by a soundtrack of crackling overheard announcements and illuminated by out of order displays. Whoosh asked customers about their experiences of rail travel and 44 per cent complained of at station communication not working. A further 22 per cent said they’d experienced outdated or incorrect information while attempting to travel by train. This is frankly not good enough.

There will always be grumbles surrounding the price, which in the vast majority of situations cannot be helped. What can be helped is the perceived value for money by the consumer. This is something that only 26 per cent of rail passengers are currently satisfied with.

There are countless benefits for not just the government but the wider public when it comes to rail travel. In order to maximise this potential, the government should kickstart it, something which their enthusiasm for is already evident of whether that be through the William-Shapps review or the Innovate UK funding. This is in turn trickling down to the operators who cannot rest on their laurels which favour stakeholders but are and should be adopting customer-centric solutions in order to drive their own profit. Luck is on their side as consumers are keen to embrace environmental choices and are aware of the practicality, speed and comfort that rail can provide in the ‘new normal’.