The pain of holiday weekend rail engineering works may soon be over, a top UK rail executive has signalled, as leisure passengers grow to rival the weekday commuter.
Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, suggested it may be better to close tracks on weekdays for maintenance: “A lot of leisure travel is going to be within Great Britain. Last year we saw a lot of really packed trains going to [seaside resorts] … It wouldn’t surprise me if on summer Saturdays we have more demand than in the working week.
“The railway might have to get used to that. If Saturday and Sunday get busy in summer, we should do engineering works at another time.”
He added: “We’ve got to be dextrous. There’s no point in us saying: we planned these engineering works on a Sunday 18 weeks ago. We should be prepared this summer to say: they want to come and we’ll take them.”
He said the coronavirus pandemic was accelerating changing commuting patterns. Season ticket sales had dropped significantly even before Covid-19, and passenger numbers had slackened off on Fridays and even Mondays.
Numbers on national rail are now about 14% of 2019 levels, and Hendy forecast that rail use would not return to more than 80% of normal for several years.
Hendy’s comments came at the National Rail Recovery conference as the industry awaits the imminent publication of the Williams review, the inquiry commissioned by the government that will set out how the railway should be reformed.
The Network Rail chairman said he hoped to see his own organisation at least rebranded in the shake-up: “We wouldn’t want the name continued, and we certainly don’t want some of its reputation or history or costs … maybe it’s easier to turn it into something different than start afresh. We don’t want some of the bad reputation the place had for failing to listen and being very expensive.”
The industry has called for reform of fares and ticketing – although it has been left disappointed by the government decision to raise fares from Monday by 2.6%, the biggest rise above inflation since 2013, despite calls for discounts to lure passengers back.
The review chair, Keith Williams, has previously spoken of the need for fares reform but on Thursday defended government inaction on the system during the pandemic, saying the circumstances meant “you need to look longer term, and make short-term steps”.