Rail usage data: Intercity train operators see a post-pandemic boost

Rail usage data: Intercity train operators see a post-pandemic boost

June 9, 2023

The great British getaway… from London! Intercity train operators see a post-pandemic boost with more journeys this year than in 2019 – while commuter belt lines struggle with some on just 62% of pre-Covid levels

  • More people travelling on LNER, East Midlands, Grand Central and Hull Trains
  • But demand has dropped on Southeastern, Chiltern and South Western Railway

Some of Britain’s intercity train operators are enjoying a post-pandemic boom with more passenger journeys now being taken than in 2019, official data has revealed.

More people went on London North Eastern Railway, East Midlands, Grand Central and Hull Trains in January to March this year than the same period four years ago.

But operators on London commuter routes are suffering, with Southeastern, Chiltern and South Western Railway all at less than two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels. This reflects the shift towards working from home as fewer people travel into the office.

Experts said the data confirms that rail demand is changing – with strong demand for leisure travel, but commuter and business journeys still below pre-pandemic levels. 

Overall journeys were down on pre-pandemic levels, with the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) giving a provisional estimate of 389million journeys made in the UK in the first quarter of 2023 – which is 88 per cent of the 443million in the same period in 2019. 

Relative usage in the 2023 first quarter was lower for most rail operators compared with 2019

This overall drop has been partly put down to the nine national strike action days between January and March this year, resulting in reduced timetables that brought an estimated reduction of up to 81 per cent in trains planned on those days.

UK rail usage by train operator in Q1 2023 compared to pre-Covid 

Data from the Office of Rail and Road shows passenger journeys by operator for January to March 2023, as a percentage of January to March 2019 

Intercity operators on the East Coast routes have particularly benefited from increased demand, with Hull Trains now at 122 per cent of 2019 levels, and London North Eastern Railway (LNER) and Grand Central both at 111 per cent. 

East Midlands Railway was just behind on 101 per cent, while Caledonian Sleeper has also done well at 96 per cent.

The next best comparative demand was found on London Overground (88 per cent), Merseyrail (85 per cent) and Northern Trains (83 per cent), all of which provide many local commuter routes for those living around cities.

However the worst comparative demand was 60 per cent at TransPennine Express (TPE), which was nationalised on May 28 after months of major disruption.

Just above TPE was Southeastern at 62 per cent, South Western Railway at 63 per cent and Chiltern Railways at 65 per cent – all lines that provide routes into London for passengers living in commuter belt towns and cities.

Faring only slightly better was another London commuter line in c2c at 69 per cent. Govia Thameslink Railway – which runs commuter lines Southern Rail, Thameslink and Great Northern as well as the Gatwick Express – was at 71 per cent.

A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents UK train operators, told MailOnline: ‘The past quarter shows us that demand for rail has changed and as an industry we need to move with it. 

‘The financial challenge remains stark, as commuter and business travel remain below pre-pandemic levels, but there is a strong demand for leisure travel. 

‘If our customers want to travel at the weekend, then we need to reform working practices to ensure we can provide reliable, punctual services when they need it.’

The London and South East area provisionally recorded 283million journeys in the latest quarter, which was 92 per cent of the 309million in the same period in 2019.

The year April 2018 to March 2019 recorded the peak number of journeys, going back to 1946

This graph shows how passenger journeys have increased in seven of the last eight quarters

The so-called ‘long distance sector’ recorded 30million journeys in the latest quarter, giving it a relative usage of 85 per cent compared with the 36million in the same quarter four years ago.

READ MORE Now e-scooters are banned on every rail operator in Britain except one


And the ‘regional sector’ recorded 73 million journeys, which was only 76 per cent of the 97million recorded four years ago.

The ORR also said there were provisionally 1.4billion journeys made in the latest full year from April 2022 until March 2023.

Excluding the previous two years which were impacted by Covid-19, this figure was the lowest number recorded since the year of April 2010 to March 2011.

It was also 83 per cent of the 1.7billion journeys made over the same period three years prior, April 2018 to March 2019 – which was itself the highest figure recorded since 1946.

However, the ORR said the journeys made over the latest year represent a big increase from those made over the previous two years – showing people have returned to railways since the pandemic receded.

Total rail passenger revenue was £2.2billion in the latest quarter, which was 70 per cent of the £3.2billion four years ago, when adjusted for inflation.

In the latest year it was £8.6billion, which equates to 72 per cent of the £12billion three years prior, again taking inflation into account.

Passengers walk along the concourse at London Waterloo railway station on Wednesday

The ORR added that ‘split tickets’ – where a passenger completes a single journey using two or more tickets for a cheaper far – accounted for 5 per cent of passenger journeys between April 2022 and March 2023, up from 3 per cent the previous year.

READ MORE LNER scraps return tickets in bid to simplify rail fares – here’s how you can save money on train journeys 

LNER said it recorded six million passenger journeys for the quarter, which was an increase of 22 per cent on the same period in 2022.

Its data shows that Fridays and Sundays are still proving to be the most popular days for passengers to travel amid high demand for leisure journeys.

LNER also said changing travel trends mean it is looking to increase capacity on Sundays, with more services on its route between London King’s Cross and Leeds.

Engineering works are also starting to be carried out midweek on some lines to avoid so much disruption at weekends when people tend to travel for leisure.

LNER’s managing director David Horne said today: ‘We’ve seen a huge demand in leisure travel, with business travel continuing to grow. 

‘In the 2022-23 financial year, we carried one million more passengers than we than we did in 2018-19.’

It comes amid concerns the rail strikes, which are thought to have cost the UK economy at least £5billion, could drag on for a further year because talks have collapsed.

Tory MPs and rail bosses have warned many commuters are now simply switching to cars or working from home, damaging the viability of the network.

A quiet London Waterloo railway station on June 3 during the most recent period of strikes

Although passenger numbers have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, revenue is still lower due to fewer season ticket sales as many people no longer go to the office.

READ MORE How families can save hundreds of pounds off their summer holidays by flying midweek to avoid Heathrow strike chaos – as travellers are urged to check their insurance in case it doesn’t cover cancellations

The rail industry is seeking reforms such as the closure of ticket offices in exchange for a pay rise for workers, but the unions have rejected the proposals. Aslef has snubbed an 8 per cent rise over two years that would take a driver’s salary to £65,000.

The RMT has rejected a 9 per cent offer over two years for station staff and guards even though its Network Rail members accepted 9 per cent in March.

However there was some good news yesterday when the RMT said it had accepted a pay offer from Scotrail. Its members will receive a 5 per cent basic uplift with the lowest paid receiving as much as an 8 per cent increase.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said yesterday: ‘This was a tough negotiation and our members have voted to accept this modest pay deal.

‘We have managed to negotiate this deal like many others on the railways including in Wales, the English regions and now Scotland.

‘Where the Department for Transport has the controlling mandate for 14 train operators, RMT has had a year-long dispute with multiple strikes.

‘Scotrail members have benefited from annual pay rises and extra value added to their overall pay packages, unlike RMT members on 14 rail operators, some of whom have not had a pay rise in four years.’

England’s regulated fares, which include season tickets on most commuter journeys, some off-peak return tickets on long-distance journeys and flexible tickets for travel around major cities, increased by up to 5.9 per cent from March 5.

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