UK rail passenger numbers slump, casting doubt on future of some franchises

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Rail passenger numbers fell by 24 million last year thanks to a sharp decline in the number of season tickets purchased.

Figures from the Office of Rail and Road revealed the sharpest decline in rail usage since privatisation in the mid-1990s, casting further doubt on the profitability of some franchises.

Overall, passenger numbers fell 1.4 per cent from in 2017-18 on the previous year while season ticket sales dropped 9.2 per cent.

Virgin Trains East Coast has already become a casualty after passenger numbers fell short of its predictions meaning it could not keep up its payments for the franchise. The company will stop operating the line on 23 June when it will be brought back under public control.

Others are also struggling, notably FirstGroup, which last month took a £106m charge on its loss-making TransPennine contract.

The prices paid for a number of franchises are thought to rely on passenger numbers continuing to rise in order to remain viable. Rail use has risen for much of the last two decades but that trend has now been halted, with some operators experiencing particularly marked falls in passenger numbers.

South Western Railway experienced a 7 per cent drop from the previous year, in part due to industrial action and the Beast from the East which saw snow carpet much of the country. On Arriva’s Northern franchise, which was also hit by strikes and bad weather, journeys fell by 9 per cent in 2017-18.

But short-term factors do not explain all of the falls. Train companies are also dealing with longer-term changes such as a move towards more remote and flexible working thanks to technological advancements.

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