There’s been much wailing in certain quarters about the precipitous decline in rail passenger numbers as a result of the pandemic, with dire forecasts of cuts ahead. Others have been more sanguine. Certainly the fall was greater and more sustained than most initially expected. Network Rail Chair Sir Peter Hendy has forecast that rail use will not return to more than 80% of pre-Covid levels for several years to come, and most informed observers tend to agree.
So what does that mean? The Office of Rail and Road 2019-20 figure of 1,742.4 million passenger journeys, only the last few weeks of which were affected by Covid, was a record. Achieving 80% of that would be 1,393 million, which would take us back a decade to just above the ridership figure of 1,353.8 million of 2010-11, so certainly a backward step but hardly justification for Beeching-era surgery. I don’t remember anybody calling for closures or major cutbacks then, and indeed I recall ministers happily boasting of the growth since privatisation!
Currently, national ridership is said to be just 15% of the 2019-20 level, although here in the North in mid-March, still in lockdown and where conventional wisdom suggests fewer people choose to travel by rail, Northern was reporting ridership figures of 26% on some days. To put these figures in historical context as numbers hopefully begin to rise, the lowest post-war figure was 630 million in 1982, just 36% of the 2019-20 figure, by which time Beeching and his disciples at the Department for Transport had done their worst, and size-wise the network had been shrunk back to not much different from now.