The Great British Rail Sale – will it tempt people back to rail?

24 January 2024

This week a second ‘Great British Rail Sale’ launched, offering half-price tickets for many journeys. This is welcome news for passengers. Our research shows that value for money is passengers’ top priority, alongside reliability and punctuality. The sale not only gives regular passengers a chance to save some money, but just as importantly provides the opportunity to entice some people who don’t regularly travel by train back on board.

Last year we surveyed 2000 people about their Motivations and barriers to rail usage. We asked current users, lapsed users and non-users of public transport if and why their use of rail has changed and about the key barriers which meant they don’t travel by train more, or at all.

We found that six in ten non-users simply don’t use the train because they prefer to travel by car. Overcoming this preference and the overall convenience offered by the car is an uphill task. We found a similar preference for car in our research looking at motivations and barriers to bus usage. However, in contrast to buses – which are already perceived as better value than rail, and helped further by the £2 fare cap – more than one in four non-users said trains are too expensive.

Enticing more people to travel by train is crucial for the railway, with passenger numbers and revenue (when adjusted for inflation) still well below pre-pandemic levels. The greatest area of opportunity is likely to be encouraging current users to choose to use rail for more trips or to win back ‘lapsed’ users – people who are not currently travelling by train, but used to. Lapsed users represent about one in 10 people, of whom around a quarter say they are likely to use the trains in future. This compares favourably with non-users; less than one in 10 of them say it’s likely they could be encouraged to use the train.

Lapsed users told us that better value fares would be the biggest incentive for them to use the train again, but of course cost is far from the only barrier. Nearly one in 10 lapsed users say they would be more likely to use the train if trains and stations were better designed for disabled users. This highlights the ongoing need to make improvements to accessibility on the railway to ensure everyone who wants to use the train feels able to access the service.

“As my wife is now disabled, it is much more difficult to use public transport and we have resorted to leasing a wheelchair accessible vehicle.”
Male, 53, Scotland

Other key factors to encourage lapsed users to return include more reliable services and less crowded trains. These are very real issues for many passengers, but we also know from previous research that the views of people not currently using trains can be influenced by generic negative perceptions and stereotypes. These often stem from stories of ‘journeys from hell’ from friends and family or negative media coverage. Unfortunately, more rail strikes on the horizon means there is a steady flow of bad news on the railway. We know this is having an impact on passengers and wider perceptions. In the research one in four current users say they would be encouraged to use the train more if there were fewer rail strikes.

“The prices are rising so high now that I cannot afford to take many train journeys and just travel mainly now when I need to make travel connections, eg, airport. In addition, the strikes are having an impact on the number of services running making it off putting.”
Male, 51, East Midlands

The new ticket sale is good news for passengers. It should help prompt some people to try out the train again and encourage some users to make some additional journeys. However, until the long-running strike action is resolved and day-to-day train reliability improves it will remain hard for people to feel they can completely rely on the train.

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