British trains now carrying as many passengers as in 1920s

THE phenomenal renaissance of Britain’s railways has passed another milestone, with trains now carrying as many passengers as in the 1920s, on a network half the size.

Almost 1.4 billion rail journeys were made over the last year, 6 per cent more than in 2010 and 75 per cent more than in the last days of British Rail 16 years ago.

The new age of the train was put down to soaring fuel prices and more cut-price ticket sales, according to the Association of Train Operators (Atoc), which published the figures.

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However, rail groups warned against complacency and said the continuing growth – despite economic stagnation – highlighted the need to invest more to meet future demand.

Annual fare rises are still above inflation and there are continuing grumbles about overcrowding on some routes.

Atoc said the latest passenger figure compared with 1.25bn in 1928, 1.77bn in 1923 and 2.06bn in 1919, when its records began. However, 90 years ago the rail network extended to more 20,000 miles, compared with about 10,000 today.

In Scotland, ScotRail passenger numbers have increased by one quarter to 78.2 million since Aberdeen-based FirstGroup took over the franchise in 2004, and are expected to reach 80 million this year. A further six million travel on cross-Border trains.

The Scottish Government expects passenger numbers to double in Edinburgh over the next 12 years, and increase by one third in Glasgow.

Atoc said its research showed more than one in four passengers had made at least one journey by train rather than car in the last few months, one third of them because of the price of fuel.

It said sales of advance tickets, which can be cheaper than those bought just before travelling, increased by up to 16 per cent.

Michael Roberts, Atoc’s chief executive, said: “Operators have attracted people to the railways by providing a range of affordable tickets and cut-price deals. The rising cost of motoring also means that rather than automatically reaching for the car keys, more and more people are heading to the train station.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog body Passenger Focus, said: “This bumper year for train companies should hopefully fuel further investment in improving services. The boom in passenger numbers underlines the longer-term need to boost the capacity of the railway.”

Ken Sutherland, research officer for campaigners Railfuture Scotland, said: “We hugely welcome the increasing numbers now travelling by train, and those attracted by the range of reduced-price advance ticket offers now available.

“However, whilst the increasing cost of motoring fuel is undoubtedly a factor in some increased rail travel, Railfuture Scotland warns against self-indulgent and fragile Atoc complacency, based on currently high oil prices. This is a delusory ‘defence’ against several more years of eye-watering inflation-busting rail fare rises proposed.”

A ScotRail spokesman said: “We are running more services than ever before to meet the increasing demand for rail transport, and over the last year have also continued to enhance trains and stations.”