Despite recent significant and sustained growth in rail usage, rail still only accounted for four per cent of motorised trips made in Britain in 2011.

While many of these trips will have been inherently unsuitable for rail travel (for example because they were too short, or because they were to places not served by rail), even for trips longer than 25 miles only 12 per cent of trips were undertaken by rail.

In order to tackle the twin challenges of congestion and carbon emissions it is desirable that a significant proportion of trips made by car and air should shift to rail, and TRG has therefore reviewed and summarised the evidence on factors which prevent people from using the train, in order to inform efforts to achieve mode shift.

Expensive to address

These factors can be considered under three broad headings, with the first being ‘hard’ barriers to rail use. These are barriers which affect all people who make a particular journey, and include uncompetitive travel times, (un)reliability, poor service frequencies and timetabling, the need to change trains, high costs, the complexity of the ticketing system, issues relating to station access and egress, and the physical limitations of the rail network, often linked to road-oriented land use patterns.

While such barriers can be easy to identify and understand and the means of dealing with them on particular corridors may therefore be relatively obvious, they often tend to be expensive to address (although not always – ticketing complexity appears to be a notable exception).

Less obvious hard barriers are structural car dependence, where people have no viable alternative to car use, and car-oriented government policy, often influenced by the powerful (and media conscious) road lobby.

Difficult to identify

The second group of barriers can be termed ‘soft’, and these are barriers which are specific to (or of varying importance to) particular individuals. They include factors such as inaccurate perceptions of the rail service offer (of ‘hard’ barriers, in other words), journey planning requirements, the level of information provided before and during journeys, the range and quality of station facilities, the cleanliness and condition of stations and trains, the presence (or absence) of railway staff, perceived or actual personal security during the journey, the level of crowding and (often linked to this) comfort, and the undesirable habits of other passengers.

Conscious car dependence, where people are unable to perceive any alternative to car use, and the convenience, freedom and control provided by cars also come under this heading.

While addressing soft barriers may in some cases require less financial resources than dealing with hard barriers, it may be difficult to identify which interventions will make most difference to most people.

Efforts to compensate

The final group of barriers is termed ‘complementary’, and includes barriers which are not directly linked to the quality of the rail option, but instead relate to the impact of wider lifestyle, cultural and economic factors on mode choice.

Complementary barriers include trip chaining (where people visit multiple destinations during a single trip), habitual behaviour, mobility restrictions caused by age, health, and disability, the need to transport large quantities of goods and baggage, the influence of employers (for example by effectively subsidising car-use through mileage allowances and company car provision), people expressing their ‘individuality’ through their choice of (and use of) car, non-transport-related residential locational preferences, sub-optimal market prices for car transport (and related services), and the protection provided by the car from the unpredictable British weather.

While it can be extremely hard for the rail industry to influence these ‘complementary’ factors, it can perhaps make efforts to compensate for them, for example by providing sufficient luggage space on board trains.

Reaching the threshold of change

In reality, it will not usually be the case that a single barrier prevents someone using the train for a particular journey. It is more likely that a combination of factors will combine to lead someone to choose an alternative mode.

In order to achieve mode shift it will be necessary to address a ‘package’ of barriers, until rail’s cumulative (and relative) attractiveness is increased to the point where the threshold of change for a particular individual (or group) is reached.

The challenge for the rail industry is therefore to identify the packages of barriers which can overcome this threshold for the maximum number of people at the minimum cost.

The best results are likely to be achieved by targeting measures at individuals who are more than usually likely to change their travel behaviour, such as those people who are experiencing problems with their current mode or who have recently undergone a major lifestyle change (such as a new job or a house move).

Another key point to note is that achieving significant mode shift is not just about carrying out expensive infrastructure enhancements. These can make a major contribution in certain circumstances, but as described above more subtle factors are also at play, and if these factors are neglected then the impact of infrastructure investments may be diluted.

The continuing pressure on rail industry costs means that ‘nudging’ people towards rail use may be increasingly important in the future, (and evidence suggests that such ‘nudges’ should be targeted at areas particularly valued by those for whom rail is not yet their preferred mode), such as achieving more seamless journeys.

While this review does not aim to provide a definitive guide towards achieving mode shift to rail, it can form a useful first step by highlighting the factors which may need to be considered when addressing the barriers to rail use which affect a particular route or area. Given the many future challenges which our transport systems face, it is important that these barriers are tackled head on.

This research was funded by the Association of Train Operating Companies.
Full details of can be found in: Barriers to passenger rail use: a review of the evidence, Transport Reviews Vol 32, No 6, Pages 675-696.