The industry has now been in a state of limbo for over a year. Even before the initial lockdown in March 2020, we were waiting for the Williams Review Since then, we have been living with a zombie railway. Passenger numbers climbed back up from 5% of 2019 levels to the dizzy heights of 43% in September before falling back as further restrictions were imposed. Happily, passenger numbers are beginning to recover now, getting back to over 40% in mid-April, with further increases certain as lockdown progressively eases. Given the success of the vaccination programme, there should be a progressive recovery, boosted by an explosion in staycation holidays, unless some new vaccine resistant, virulent and highly contagious strain of the virus emerges. The big unknown is what the new base level of demand will be, although it’s increasingly clear that peak commuter volumes will not recover to anything like pre-pandemic levels.
There was a real concern at the start of the pandemic that the world would turn away from worrying about climate change, but happily the focus on this issue is stronger than ever, helped in no small part by Donald Trump’s election defeat in the US. The Government has set enormously challenging carbon reduction targets, although as yet it’s far from obvious how these are to be achieved. For the rail industry, it’s crystal clear that electrification is key, and there are signs that ministers are beginning to recognise this. We await the Transport Decarbonisation Plan with bated breath – this should set out the route to net zero for the rail industry and will hopefully consign battery and hydrogen trains to a small number of secondary routes.