Commuters should get used to fewer trains after the pandemic but can expect better reliability, the chairman of Network Rail has indicated.
Sir Peter Hendy said on Thursday that “too many trains on the track” does not improve the service, adding: “We’ve proved that.”
In an address to the National Rail Recovery Conference, he said that old commuting patterns may not return once the country opens up again.
While commuter traffic will “come back”, Sir Peter predicted it would remain at “permanently lower” levels than before the Covid-19 crisis.
He forecast a reduction of up to 40 per cent in commuter rail travel was possible, according to the BBC.
Asked whether he thought that only 90 per cent of the rail timetable should be brought back once lockdown measures end, because it had been demonstrated during the pandemic that the railways run more efficiently when there are fewer trains, he replied: “I do.”
In a frank nod to problems with late and disrupted train services before the pandemic, he said: “The service doesn't run better if you put too many trains on the track. We’ve proved that.
“You shouldn't try to get more out of the infrastructure than it can give you. All of my experience is that people prefer reliability to journey time.”
The increases to several services that were introduced before the Covid crisis erupted are now viewed as “unsustainable”, according to a Network Rail source.
The British railway network owner and manager has “learned the lesson that if you slightly reduce the number of services, in return you get better reliability and services running on time”, the insider said.
In a positive development for Britons awaiting the reinstatement of freedoms, Sir Peter indicated that weekend line closures may be scrapped if demand for leisure travel surges as restrictions are lifted.
There would be “no point” in carrying out engineering work on dates when trains would be packed, he conceded. He added it would come as no surprise if the railways were busier on Saturdays than the working week during the warmer months.
In that event, maintenance and upgrade work could instead take place during quieter weekdays, he said, indicating that Network Rail would try to be dextrous and thoughtful.
The appetite for day trips to beach locations surged last summer as people poured out of urban centres once the first lockdown ended. Sir Peter indicated that comfort rather than capacity could become a priority for train interiors as a result of the change in travel patterns.
"People are going to be much less willing to cram in and have their nose stuck in somebody's armpit," he said. "Our reaction to being in crowded places now is a much greater level of discomfort than it used to be."