The Great Trickle Back? Will space on buses and trains match demand?

17 February 2022

Passengers are returning to bus and rail. As restrictions change people are returning to working in offices, shopping and relaxing further afield. Revenue, still a long way below 2019 levels, is climbing again. 

This is causing crowding in some places. Pictures are emerging on Twitter of crowded buses and trains. The tube in London is filling up again. Are we in for a messy transition phase as we all adjust to the new normal? 

Demand for rail and bus services has changed. The Tuesday to Thursday commute seems to be becoming more normal for some. It is too early to tell what long-term pattern passenger numbers might settle into. On some rail routes, perhaps we don’t want to return to full 2019 timetables if there were simply too many trains for the network to cope with reliably  

Possibly, thinning out of what used to be the most packed parts of the peak timetable would help address the most important passenger need: punctuality. It may also be that some trains can be redeployed to meet growing leisure demand at other times of the day. 

There is also pressure on Government funding for services. Short-term funding deals for bus services outside London and with Transport for London are making planning difficult. Adding extra services in to meet demand has to be justified in terms of the extra revenue that will be generated. Add in the lingering effects of Covid on staff availability and some industrial relations issues on rail, and it does not feel like we have yet reached a stable place. It’s also clear that in some locations there are insufficient services to meet demand or to provide connectivity to the places people want to travel. 

At the same time many of us have become more wary of crowded spaces. Tolerances to crowding may take time to change again. So, what might have felt ‘normal’ before may not feel so OK now. The level of crowding on trains has the second greatest impact on overall passenger satisfaction. However, despite some significant challenges in some locations, overall satisfaction among bus and rail users is holding up as shown by our recent surveys. 

So, what can be done in the meantime? Operators need to keep a beady eye on crowding. Services will need to be tweaked to meet emerging and shifting demand. Where possible extra services may be needed. Does public transport need to speculate to accumulate? Provide the capacity in the belief they will come? Scaling back frequency makes it less convenient to use, pushing people to car and undermining efforts to decarbonise.  It seems clear that a positive experience is going to be critical in ensuring appetite to travel again now many have discovered that effective work may not always need to be done in the office. 

The welcome boost in information about the crowding on services that Covid prompted needs to be maintained, refined and boosted. In that way passengers can at least be given information about how busy services are likely to be and can therefore make some better-informed decisions about when to travel assuming they have that choice. Information about crowding is the fifth most important driver of satisfaction in our recent rail passenger satisfaction work. Plus, the enduring focus on reliability needs to be kept up. Delays can cause crowding.  

This is somewhat cold comfort if you are cramming on to a crowded bus or train. If the services you use have been reduced or, as is happening to some bus services, cut altogether, the options will feel very limited. Transport Focus will be talking to operators about how they monitor and manage crowding with a view to filling in some of the gaps. 

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