Rail passenger growth report highlights critical need for investment

New research by consultancy Steer for the Railway Industry Association (RIA) has found that rail passenger numbers could double by 2050.

Steer’s ‘Final Report’ of Research on Long-Term Passenger Demand Growth issued for the RIA believes that passenger numbers could grow between 1.6% and 3.0% per annum, representing between 37% and almost 100% of the pre-pandemic peak.

Steer says that it is ‘confident that under any scenario rail demand in the UK will grow beyond today’s network, growth that government policy, rail services and operators will need to accommodate.’

The RIA is calling for rail reform and a long-term rail strategy ‘as soon as possible’, including a plan for increased north-south capacity. It adds that the UK has many opportunities to expand rail travel to better its economy and connectivity, while bringing social and decarbonisation benefits. Rail experts believe this will not be delivered under current government plans.

RIA’s Chief Executive Darren Caplan said: “Under the lowest growth scenario, even if the UK Government does nothing and lets the industry drift along as it is, rail passenger numbers still grow by a third in the 25 years to 2050.”

The report looks at four prediction models, based on underlying growth, customer offer, behavioural changes and ‘sluggish’ growth.

Until the pandemic, rail had seen sustained growth in passenger usage since privatisation. The rail market has already recovered to around 90% of pre-pandemic volumes.

Steer’s scenarios say it is ‘likely’ there will be a full recovery to pre-pandemic levels in four to seven years.

Economic factors, behavioural change and future public transport tends among others have weighed into Steer’s predictions, with its most ‘pessimistic’ view placing a return to peak pre-COVID passenger levels around 2036. Its more pragmatic outlook sees these return in 2028, assuming green policies are adopted to entice passengers to public transport. If the ‘status quo’ remains, 2031 seems more likely.

Railway Industry Association Steer consultancy rail growth forecast

Caplan explained: “If a future Government adopts a bold and ambitious strategy to improve the customer offer and drive some behavioural change, passenger numbers could double by 2050, dramatically increasing revenues. Freight is also likely to grow in this time, with the Government itself setting a 75% growth target over the next 25 years.”

Earlier this month the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that the UK population will rise by 6.6 million or 10% to 73.7 million in the next 15 years to mid-2036, increasing the demand on infrastructure and transport.

Steer has omitted the ONS projections in its forecasts, which it says further underlines its assumptions of continued growth. Growth which the RIA says government policy, rail services and operators will need to accommodate.

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