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6.4m Brits set to travel to their holiday by train this year amid sustainability drive, Thales reveals

With the UK seeing a resurgence of ‘staycations’, a fifth (20%) of Britain’s domestic holidaymakers plan to travel to their destination via train this year, according to new research from global technology company Thales. Brits plan to travel more sustainably moving forwards too, with almost a quarter (24%) of Brits reporting they plan to fly less and travel more by train when holidaying in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. 

However, despite the UK lockdown restrictions gradually easing, the research also reveals that health and hygiene concerns following the pandemic may prevent many passengers from committing to more sustainable journeys in the near future. It will therefore be essential for rail companies to respond to customers’ concerns and respond robustly to maintain the momentum towards rail. According to the research, which surveyed 2,000 adults in the UK, a quarter (23%) said the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more cautious about using public transport in the next 12 months. Prohibitive ticket prices are the biggest obstacle to 38% of Brits committing to taking regular rail journeys. 

What does this mean for the future of rail in the UK?

Further emerging trends coming out of the research indicate that despite these worries, perceptions of rail travel are shifting, and it is increasingly being seen as a viable transport alternative due to the role it plays in reducing carbon emissions. Almost two fifths (38%) recognised greater use of public transport as one of the best ways to reduce travel emissions and vehicles powered by alternative energy sources, such as electric cars, (42%) were another popular way respondents feel they can reduce their environmental impact. This all sits against a backdrop of supporting evidence in favour of rail. Transport is the UK’s largest carbon emitting sector, yet rail is responsible for less than 2% of all transport emissions in the UK. The importance of driving a modal shift on the road to net zero is even more evident given that across Europe, emissions in rail have dropped by 40% over the last quarter of a century, despite a 37% increase in passenger journeys .  

However, despite these positive perceptions of the benefits of rail, the number of train-riding Brits could increase even further if the industry can tackle some of the misconceptions around the environmental impact of rail travel. The research suggests that 29% of us think that all trains are still powered by fossil fuels, whilst 27% think the National Rail network is mainly powered by outdated technology like steam, despite the reality of rail in the UK having innovated significantly over the years. 

Andy Bell, Vice President of Ground Transportation at Thales explained: “It is encouraging to see a growing commitment from the public to travel more sustainably in the UK, as we all become increasingly conscious of how our choices can contribute to a greener future. The rail industry has a key role to play in reducing the country’s emissions output in the years to come, and high-speed rail and digital innovation will be key parts of meeting this challenge head on.” 

Encouraging travellers back onto trains

However, it appears that the initial increase in rail passenger numbers as a result of taking staycations may not be set to last if UK rail providers do not take sufficient longer term action. Beyond the increase in rail passenger numbers expected to be caused by taking holidays this year, over a quarter (27%) of workers in the UK say they are more likely to drive to work than before the pandemic, due to new flexible working weeks. With this in mind, a key factor for passengers going forwards will be greater flexibility when it comes to ticketing as they look to return to the office on a hybrid basis with the majority (59%) flagging that this would be key for them if they were to commute by rail.

In order to address the change in commuting patterns the recent launch of national rail flexible season tickets by government was designed to address these concerns and give commuters the incentive they need to leave the car at home. Only a third (36%) of respondents, however, feel that the new plan does not provide them with a solution that would make rail a viable commuting option, highlighting that more will need to be done to encourage passengers back onto trains on a regular basis. And with remote working set to continue for some, less frequent journeys into the office may establish itself as the norm. 

Going forwards, technology will play a vital role in creating a more passenger-focussed railway. It is a key enabler to providing passengers with an improved and personalised door to door journey experience and the benefits of modernising British railways are not just limited to flexibility or environmental factors. The advantages of installing new technology systems also include improved availability of real-time information for passengers, as well as more frequent, reliable services. There are benefits for operators too, such as reducing the costs of running their networks and increasing the reliability of their infrastructure.

“There is understandably caution around transitioning back to public transport, but with efforts to make journeys as safe as possible and the vaccine roll-out in full flow, public confidence will likely be restored again in the months to come.” Bell continued.
“Now, more than ever, the rail industry must work together towards delivering a truly customer-focussed railway that provides a modern passenger experience and takes us towards a net zero carbon future.”

Thales surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK respondents via Opinium between the 25th and 29th of June, 2021.