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blog: Train Strikes: Are we veering off the rails to recovery post-pandemic?

Author: Rebecca Phillips

Industrial action across the multiple sectors regarding pay and working conditions have cost the UK economy over £6 billion since Summer 2022. The rail sector was one of the first to take strike action, which has happened to varying degrees since June 2022 causing major financial costs to the economy and chaos for passengers whilst the industry continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Strike action adds to already disappointing statistics over the reliability of rail services potentially culminating in a long-term decline in rail usage as the behavioural costs of these events are yet to be realised.

COVID-19 and the Rise in Working from Home

The COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented shift in the world as we knew it, including when and how we travel. The rise in usage of the private car due to fear of infection amongst other factors came at the demise of other public transport modes such as rail, bus, and tube. Post-pandemic demand on public transport in the UK as a whole has simply not recovered to pre-pandemic levels after nearly three years, fluctuating around the 80% mark.

For rail, journeys made between July and September 2022, were only 80.3% of the pre-pandemic journeys made in the same quarter of 2019-20 (data from ORR).

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Passenger journeys in Great Britain 1st April 2018 to 30th September 2022 (Source – ORR, 2022)

High levels of working from home witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic have continued, which has had an impact on the use of public transport. For many who are able, the 5-day working at the workplace week has arguably become a thing of the past; working from home has become the norm for many, and commuters are opting to travel to the office for only a couple of days a week, myself included.

Current Situation

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, current strike action and declining reliability of services within the rail sector, combined with the rise in homeworking have provided a ‘perfect storm’ in the potential long-term demise of rail usage.

Recent data suggests that rail cancellations are at an all-time high, with almost 1 in 12 rail journeys being cancelled in the final four weeks of 2022 (data from ORR). Similarly, only 67.7% of trains arrived on time (within 1 minute of the scheduled time) between July and September 2022. A number of factors have been cited by operators for this, including staff shortages, and extenuating circumstances such as winter weather and high rates of absence/sickness.

Alongside these wider industry issues, ongoing industrial action has taken place in varying degrees from overtime bans, certain role strikes, up to full strikes. This has created chaos for passengers who have seen either services not running or only running a very limited service.

Unfortunately, like many others, I have experienced first-hand the impact strikes can have on travel plans. Travelling by train is my only viable means of commuting into our London office and on strike days, my station is one of the unlucky ones to have no service at all ☹. Even on non-strike days, services sometimes start significantly later, making working from home my only option.

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What does this mean for long-term usage of rail?

Whilst people may be sympathetic to the rail workers and their need to strike, there is a risk that long-term disruption to daily travel patterns may lead to permanent behavioural change. Reliability is a key influence on modal choice. For many passengers, strike action has compounded inherent dissatisfaction of the rail sector which, in the eyes of many, has become increasingly unreliable and expensive over the years. I fear that this could be the last straw, resulting in people choosing to travel differently, or not travel at all, in the future. This will increase carbon emissions (as car usage is likely to be the alternative modal choice for many) and impact the economy as more people choose to work from home.

For those who have no other option but rail to travel to work, current employment may not be sustained, resulting in unemployment; in addition, the ability to access work opportunities for those currently unemployed reduces. Research by Nuffield Health has suggested that around 80% of UK workers feel that working from home has impacted their mental health through issues with switching off, stress, and loneliness. However, for those who rely on in-person working, the rail industry provides a vital link between home and workplace and may increase in importance as the long-term impacts of working from home on mental health are realised.

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Leisure trips have also been affected. For me personally, I’ve had to change a number of plans around the Christmas period and create contingency plans for other planned trips just in case of strike action. The risk of industrial action taking place has prevented me from booking any future events such as concerts and theatre trips in places like London. In fact, rail strike action cost the UK hospitality industry £1.5 billion in December alone (data from UKHospitality).

In order to make sustainable public transport more attractive, it needs to be reliable, convenient, and cost-effective for users. Passengers want a service they can rely on, both for strike and non-strike days, which rail services have been falling short on recently. There is the risk that these long-running issues disillusion and dissuade not only existing, but also potential users from seeing rail services as a viable option available to them at a time when promotion of sustainable transport modes is most crucial.

Looking to the future, for me the benefits of hybrid working outweigh the negative impacts of current issues within the rail sector. Whilst others could potentially utilise other forms of transport for commuting, I am constrained to travelling into the office by train. However, I can imagine for those who prefer remote working, these issues could create unwanted hassle, leading to a potential barrier to travel.

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Even for leisure journeys, I have started to look for more local events which I can travel to without using the train. These changes in behaviour I have made as a result of my experience of using rail recently, are likely to be reflected by others. Will these be short-term temporary adjustments to travel behaviour, or will we become accustomed to limiting travel by rail for fear of encountering issues on our journeys in the long term? Only time will tell.

ITP’s Influencing Behaviour team are involved in a wide range of projects aiming to encourage the uptake of more sustainable modes of transport. To find out more about these behaviour change projects visit the Influencing Behaviour page on our website.


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