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The number of rail passenger journeys in Britain fell sharply in spring this year, after two decades of virtually constant growth since privatisation.
Analysts and industry observers said the figures were concerning, while Labour said it raised serious questions about the viability of franchises.
Figures from the Office of Rail and Road show that the total number of journeys was 407.5m from April through to the end of June, a decline of 4.6% compared with the same period last year.
Journeys by passengers using season tickets fell by almost 13% year on year, with many switching to advance purchase tickets.
Commuter journeys in London and the south-east fell by 6.5%, including a drop of 8.8% on South West Trains (now South Western Railway), 5.3% on the troubled Govia Thameslink Railway (owner of Southern rail), 7.4% on Southeastern and 16.9% on London Overground, partly due to the temporary closure of the branch to Barking.
The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said: “This substantial fall in rail usage reflects passenger frustration at the cost and inflexibility of the ticketing system and direction of the railway more broadly.”
Average fares have risen 27% since 2010, far faster than wages, while another 3.6% rise is due in January.
McDonald added: “The decline in patronage, particularly in the south-east, raises serious questions about the government’s rail franchising programme which is based on ever increasing rail patronage. I don’t believe the current model can sustain a downturn.”
Industry sources said it called into question the sums paid for recent franchises. One said: “The whole franchising model is predicated on growth. At a time when firms have paid massive premiums, they have got to be worried.”
The rail industry has faced the spectre of failing franchises before as two private firms walked away from the east coast mainline between 2007 and 2009, leaving it to the government to run after they failed to meet revenue predictions. Stagecoach, which has run the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise since 2015, has taken a £84m hit and attempted to renegotiate the terms of its deal after passenger growth fell below forecasts.
Gerald Khoo, an analyst at Liberum Capital, said of the passenger figures: “This is potentially concerning for operators who have won franchises recently if they have assumed much faster growth.”
Abellio promised £3.7bn for the Greater Anglia franchise, which it started less than a year ago. First Group retained the TransPennine Express franchise last year with a bid that analysts said assumed passenger growth of between 13% and 18% a year from its second year, but numbers have so far remained static. In conjunction with MTR, it pledged to pay £2.6bn for the South Western franchise it took over in August.
A source close to First Group said the firm was “not spooked” by the regulator’s report, which he said was a small statistical snapshot.
Campaigners, who have warned that key workers are being driven out of jobs in cities because of the cost of commuting, said the figures underlined the need for part-time season tickets. Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “With the change to people’s working patterns we need to see the introduction of season tickets for part-time workers and improvements to a ticketing system which is far too complex.”
He added: “The fall in rail passenger journeys shows that rather than ploughing billions into new road building projects, which only adds more traffic to our already congested roads, the government should give rail the investment it really needs, making it a more attractive and affordable option for passengers.”
Some form of part-time season ticketing has been promised by the government as part of newly awarded rail franchises, including on South Western Railway.
Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which brings together train companies and Network Rail to improve the railway, said: “Despite fluctuations in demand and consumer spending, adjusting for the timing of Easter, the short-term impact of industrial action and current economic uncertainties the overarching trend continues to point to sustained long-term growth.”
This article first appeared on www.theguardian.com
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