Monday essay: commuting catastrophe ahead?

ONCE again some media commentators are predicting the end of commuting as we have known it for well over a century, and implying that it also could spell disaster for public transport systems (writes Sim Harris).

This kind of forecast is based on the quaint notion that transport organisations – rail operators in particular – have been minting money because they sell so many season tickets (or used to sell them).

It is hard to explain to people in big cities, who used to cram themselves on board rush hour trains at Leeds or East Croydon, why they are mistaken if they believe that there was gold in them thar carriages.

The reality is that there wasn’t, because so many assets had to be employed to provide an artificially intensive service for just a few hours each day. More trains to lease, maintain and stable, more staff to work on those trains, more tracks on which to run them, more platforms for them to use, and even more office staff to process claims for delay compensation or season ticket refunds.

Just as a pet is not only for Christmas, a train is not just for the rush hour: both the pet and the train are 24-hour, seven-days-a-week commitments. 

A train standing idle on a siding is a bit cheaper, certainly – little or no traction current being consumed, no kilometres clocking up, no variable track access charges and no expensive driver sitting in the cab. But although the detailed finances of train leasing are Deep Dark Secrets, we can be pretty sure that the ROSCo is still levying a base charge, which is not related to distance but to time. And that never stops.

So a smaller fleet is cheaper, particularly if every unit in that fleet is out on the track earning money all day long, except during pauses for maintenance.

We get a hint from as long ago as 1997, when the last of the original franchises began. Although British Rail had been wont to claim that its InterCity sector had been profitable, every franchise which was carved out of that sector turned out to need subsidies, with one modest exception.

That was Gatwick Express, which really was profitable, and that was why it was snatched from Network SouthEast and used to boost the takings of Intercity. Gatwick Express is a special operation. Demand is fairly steady throughout the day and into the night, reflecting the virtually 24-hour nature of the aviation industry. (We no longer know if GX was still profitable up to the start of lockdown, because in recent years its finances have been subsumed into the much larger Govia Thameslink Railway.)

But generally speaking commuter railways are expensive to run, at least if they have the sharp peaks which are typical in Britain (and many other countries).

So an easing of commuter demand could well help the railways in the medium and longer term, rather than damaging them. But there are going to be some bumps in the road before we get there. Whatever you want to call the times we are currently living through, they are very far from being a new normal.

New, yes. Normal, no. And not for some time yet, either.

The August print edition of Railnews, RN282, was published on 30 July. The new edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.