Britain’s railways have undoubtedly faced huge and well-documented challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. Very low passenger numbers triggered by stay-at-home orders and home-working have destroyed their revenue base.
But there is good reason to believe that in the long-term, shifts in demand prompted by the pandemic could be an asset to the railways and present an opportunity for efficiency gains across the system.
Railway passenger numbers are currently at around 25% of their pre-pandemic levels, but this scale of cut will not be permanent. Even in September, while restrictions remained in some parts of the country and home-working continued, numbers had recovered to around 45%, according to Department for Transport figures.
The current scale of blanket home-working for office workers seems unlikely to continue beyond the end of the pandemic, but equally, it seems inevitable that at least part-time home working will become more common.
This will inevitably hit demand for rail services at the current commuter morning and evening peaks. But this is not necessarily a bad thing in the long-term. One of the most difficult aspects of running a railway is dealing with an outsized demand peak, when infrastructure and seats are stretched to their maximum.
The existence of outsized “peak” demand means that railway operators have to hang on to and maintain assets that are only used at peak time. The physical railway itself also has to be designed to handle the number of services that need to run at peak time despite this only lasting a few hours a day.
If a rise in home-working reduces the difference between the peak and the off-peak, it would be possible to run railways more efficiently by having fewer assets that are only required in the peak. The structure of demand could become more evenly distributed across the day.