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Rail’s slow recovery threatens high streets and rising congestion 

Words: Huw Morris
Rail infrastructure / Shutterstock_58222861

Commuting by train has reached just a third of pre-Covid pandemic levels, threatening the future of towns and city centres and propelling increased congestion.

Research for industry body the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) found that train commuting is just 33 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. It warns a permanent 20 per cent shift from rail to road would lead to 300 million extra hours of traffic congestion.

This shift would see the West Midlands with five million hours, Greater Manchester with four million hours and West Yorkshire with four million as the worst affected regions outside of London, where the figure is estimated at 169 million.

The shift would also create around one million extra tonnes of CO2 emissions a year - equivalent to all activity in Swansea in 2019.

The RDG said pre-pandemic train commuters spent £133 billion a year in city centres and high streets. Without including rail fares, the average passenger spends up to £94 on other activities, including food and drink, shopping, accommodation, entertainment, culture and other travel.

“For many former Monday to Friday commuters the future is undoubtedly going to be a mix of home and office working but the extent to which people return to the workplace and whether or not they take the train to get there is going to be crucial,” said RDG director general Andy Bagnall. “When people take the train it’s more than a journey - it will impact the future of thousands of small businesses, local air quality and the government’s net-zero ambitions.”

Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter warned that around one in 19 deaths in UK cities and large towns were related to air pollution before the pandemic. He called on municipal leaders to introduce congestion charging and clean air zones to encourage people out of their cars and onto public transport. 

“As we emerge from the pandemic, they should push ahead with this policy,” Carter added.

Image credit | Shutterstock