There could be long-term damaging effects on city centres and High Streets unless workers return to commuting by train, new research warns.
Train commuting is currently just 33% of pre-pandemic levels, while car journeys have reached pre-pandemic levels, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) said.
RDG added that a 20% shift from rail to road would lead to 300 million extra hours of traffic congestion. Cities could be hit hard with traffic congestion and business closures.
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Data shows train commuters are vital to city centres and high streets, spending a total of £30 billion per year.
Autumn commuting habits will tell all
As new commuting habits form this autumn, city centres and High Streets could be hit by a double whammy of gridlocked roads and business closures if there is a significant ongoing reduction in train commuters, RDG research shows.
With more workers set to return to offices this month, encouraging people to take the train for their commute will be vital to avoid empty shop fronts and polluting traffic jams in cities across the country. Latest figures from the rail industry show that train commuting is at just a third of pre-pandemic levels, although this is expected to increase this month.
It could take years to return to numbers seen in 2019.
However, car journeys are recovering much more quickly. Government data shows that the number of car journeys has almost reached pre-pandemic levels at around 96% but the overall number of people taking train trips is still lagging behind at around 60%.
The figures come as new research finds a 20% shift of pre-pandemic train passengers to road would lead to 300 million extra hours of lost time due to traffic congestion each year, equivalent to watching everything on Netflix around 8,000 times.
The West Midlands (5 million hours), Greater Manchester (4 million) and West Yorkshire (4 million) would be the worst affected city regions outside London (169 million). The shift could also damage the environment and government ambitions to reach net zero, creating an estimated one million extra tonnes of CO2 emissions per year – the same amount produced by all activity in Swansea in 2019.
The research, by WPI Economics for the Rail Delivery Group, shows the extent to which city centre coffee shops, pubs and retailers could also suffer if rail commuting doesn’t pick up.
Andy Bagnall, director general of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “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.
“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.
“We want to ensure that returning commuters get the best deal and new Flexi Seasons are a good start, but we also want to work with government on extending tap-in, tap-out pay-as-you-go to major cities beyond the capital so that people know they are always paying the best price.”