Selling rail travel in the future: change needed!

03 July 2020

Covid-19 has dramatically changed how many of us travel, indeed if we travel. Our weekly Covid-19 survey confirms few people are currently using public transport. So far as the lockdown has eased people have largely turned to the car to get around.

It’s not clear when people will return to public transport. The move in England tomorrow to reopen more destinations and shift to social distancing at one-metre plus appears to be the first step in increasing capacity on public transport. Face coverings are key in putting the ‘plus’ in ‘one-metre plus’, so does reducing the social distancing guidance on public transport like this make sense to people? Our latest Covid-19 tracker survey shows there’s no clear consensus yet. Almost half agreed that as long as passengers are wearing face coverings reducing social distancing from two metres makes sense, while a third disagreed. It’s clear many people remain worried about being able to keep a safe distance from fellow passengers.

What legacy will this crisis leave for how people travel and use public transport in future? We’ve been using our weekly Covid-19 survey to build up insight into how people think their travel habits will change. Some say they will switch to more active travel modes such as walking and cycling, while others will drive more. Over eight weeks of the survey around half of those answering the question said they expect to work from home more often in the future, and now in our most recent survey more than a third said they think their job will be homebased with limited travel to their workplace. This suggests that the national experiment in working from home will lead to a long-term shift.

“Changing work patterns will probably result in most of my job being based from home and trips to the office will be too infrequent to make a season ticket financially beneficial.” Previous South Western Railway monthly ticket holder

We aren’t going to see a full return to the traditional Monday-Friday commute for the office workers who make up a large part of the railway’s traditional customer base. Part-time working and self-employment have already increased by over a third in the past 20 years. Work patterns changed forever by Covid-19 will mean an explosion in demand for flexible-seasons and ‘carnet’ tickets that had been building anyway. Even before the pandemic many people were not working a traditional nine-to-five job in the same location each day, as rail season tickets assume.

Yesterday we published the National Rail Passenger Survey Spring 2020 results. The fieldwork was undertaken before lockdown so it shows us what satisfaction was like before the world changed. The results confirm that even before this crisis value for money was a key issue for rail passengers, with only 47 per cent satisfied with value for money, falling to just 32 per cent of rail commuters.

This value for money challenge will be exacerbated by the changes in working practices we’re now seeing. People working from home for two or three days a week do not want to pay for a traditional season ticket, but still expect some recognition that they are a regular, if less frequent, traveller.

“Even when the office reopens I expect I will be going there fewer than 2 days a week. Unfortunately there’s no flexible ticket offering for regular part-time travellers.” Previous Northern annual ticket holder

This is not just about passengers getting a better deal in future. It’s about a sustainable recovery in public transport as we emerge from this crisis. The railway must have an attractive offer to commuters to ensure any resurgence in use of the car doesn’t become a longstanding habit that’s hard to break. Once loyal ‘card carrying’ season ticket holders may not return if the railway doesn’t catch-up with the real-world changes in how people will live and work from now on.

We also know many passengers see the fares structure as complicated and confusing. Our research with non-users and infrequent users found that nearly 50 per cent cite the cost of fares as a reason for not using rail, with 16 per cent saying that complexity also acts as a barrier. This also feeds into poor levels of trust with the railway. Split ticketing compounds all these problems. Passenger views on the current ticketing offer are well known: complicated, illogical, expensive, low levels of trust.

A new railway needs a twenty first century retail offer. That’s why I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport urging that reform is not forgotten, and in fact is accelerated, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. We welcome the Secretary of State’s reply recognising that the case for reform has been strengthened and that work has already begun on carnets that could bring quick benefits to part-time commuters. The railway must reflect the way we live and work now. Transport Focus stands ready to help with the reform process.

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