Off-peak leisure travel on the railways has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic levels, although commuter traffic remains muted, according to figures from the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

Analysis of the journey data from those weeks by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) shows that journeys have risen to 22 million a week across the country, having risen by over a quarter since the end of the summer holidays.

Demand for shorter trips, under 50 miles, are now back to normal, and while commuter journeys also increased throughout the autumn, from 33% of pre-pandemic levels in late August to 45% in mid-October, they still remain far below pre-pandemic levels.

Commuter journeys outside of London are now at 54% of pre-pandemic levels, whereas London is only at 41%. This is largely due to the higher percentage of Londoners who are able to work from home, compared to outside London where more jobs require people to be physically present at their place of work.

The recovery in leisure travel is partly why the rail industry has been changing its engineering plans. Where a major piece of work would have been spread over many weekends of line closures, Network Rail is carrying out more blockages lasting around a week, and shutting the line when commuters would normally have used it. This means the work can be carried out far quicker. For example, a 5-day possession of a railway in one block can typically deliver the same amount of work as 5 weekends, amounting to 10 days of possession. As commuter traffic is still depressed, a weekday blockade affects fewer people than lots of weekend closures would. And apart from being less annoying to passengers, keeping the railways open when most people want to use them is a key element in encouraging people to travel again.

Encouraging people back onto trains is vital for local economies. Research by WPI Economics on behalf of RDG shows that train passengers spend an average of £95 per trip on things like shops, restaurants, hotels and galleries, totalling £133 billion a year.

The uptick in leisure journeys has boosted the economic recovery of rural, seaside and leisure destinations, but concern remains for the slower return of commuters, in particular London which has seen the slowest rise in rail passengers.

The rail industry in general is working to boost rail travel with advertising campaigns and pricing offers, but these mainly relate to leisure travel. A recovery in commuter traffic is going to be largely out of their hands as it’s more dependent on the needs of businesses wanting to bring teams back together again.

Maybe it’s time to bring back a refreshed version of Tony Kaye famous, if at the time controversial, Intercity advert.


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