City commuting by rail
Of the 27 million workers across England, by far the most usual method of travel to work is car; just 11% take the train. However, the share of train commuters has been increasing and is up from 1.6 million commuters (7%) in 2002 to 2.9 million at the last count. In 2016-2017 almost 1 billion more rail journeys were made than in the mid-1990s and rail journeys are now at their highest level since the 1920s.
There are however, regional differences, with a much higher share of London commuters (well over a third) using the train. This reflects the extensive underground system, which handles around 5 million passengers journeys each day over its 11 lines and 270 stations. In contrast only 3% of commuters in the Greater Manchester area use a train (excluding its tram) regularly despite the fact that it has a population of 2 million people. After London, Birmingham has the largest number of rail passengers, with 42,300 daily commuters. However, rail demand has increased at all most major cities, most notably Manchester and Leeds up 7% in the last year recorded.
Figure 1: Commuters’ usual mode of transport
Source: Department for Transport
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those that commute by train have a longer journey, averaging 60 mins each way. This compares with a 27 minute trip to work for car commuters. Yet whatever mode of transport used, the commuting time is edging up; on average commuters now spend 32 mins travelling to work, up from 28 minutes in 2002 (excluding those who walk). In addition, many more commuters are long distance travelling; the number of commuters spending more than two hours travelling to and from work is up by 72% over the last decade. As a result, around 3 million commuters are travelling more than two hours a day. Around 880,000 are travelling three hours or more a day.
This trend of more rail passengers travelling further is likely to be amplified over the next couple of decades with the completion of HS2 and other major (light) rail schemes across the UK. HS2 will significantly reduce the travel time between the regional cities and London; it will knock 25% off the time for both York and Liverpool to London. For Manchester and Sheffield, the savings will be even more marked (47% and 45% respectively). This will allow employees to access a wider pool of employment opportunities in cities other than their place of residence. This is likely to engender a whole new cohort of long distance rail commuters by 2040, particularly increasing the share of rail commuters in the regional cities (London is already well served).
Offsetting this trend slightly will be the rise in flexible working patterns. The number of people working from home has increased by a fifth in the last ten years to reach a record 1.5 million; that’s up by nearly a quarter of a million in a decade. If this trend were to continue at the same rate, around 2.1 million people could be working full time at home by 2040. In addition, there are many more workers who work at home for part of the week and around 4 million UK workers would like to work from home for at least some of their working week. As a result, while we expect the number of rail commuters and journey lengths to have increased by 2040, individual commuters themselves may take fewer journeys.
This trend will present new challenges and opportunities for cities – railway terminals will get busier (possibly giving them the critical mass to offer new retail or leisure outlets), but their use may also get more unpredictable. And travel to work areas will widen, and overlap more, giving workers more choice.